Thursday, October 11, 2007

Macbeth: Good, Bad, and Ugly

I have been fortunate to see excellent productions of many Shakespeare plays, but up until a week ago, I hadn't seen a Macbeth that I thought was any good at all.

My first experience with Macbeth came at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in spring 2002: the show opened the New Theater. And it was a big disappointment--most of all in the actor playing Macbeth. At Ashland, he excels in funny roles like Falstaff or Trinculo--but carried his mugging mannerisms into the role of Macbeth. Whenever a prophecy came true or he otherwise had to show fear, he'd bug his eyes out of his head like a cartoon character. The nadir came at "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," some of the most mannered acting I've ever witnessed. The actor shouted the first TOMORROW!, then delivered the second two "tomorrow"s in an ominous, low monotone. It made no emotional sense and disrupted Shakespeare's rhythm.

Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, but Ashland made it even shorter and more headlong, even cutting the Witches' "Double, double, toil and trouble." Also, there were just six actors: Macbeth, Lady M, Banquo, and three actresses who played all the other roles. There was too much switching back-and-forth of roles for most audience members to understand, especially because Macbeth is full of minor thanes, etc., who come on for a scene and then leave. The only doubling that was really interesting involved having the same woman play both Macduff and Lady Macduff.

The entire production was kind of dark and gloomy, on a bare stage with a pool of stage blood in the center (so the fights consisted of people flinging blood at one another). But the pacing was too fast, and I never succumbed to the magic of the theater. Really, I got nothing out of this version.

Even worse, however, was the production of Macbeth at my high school the next autumn. I got to witness the debacle firsthand because I appeared in it as an extra. The director didn't do any gender-blind casting, which annoyed me, because I, a junior, had no lines, while a bunch of freshman guys with no acting experience got roles like Ross, Banquo, and Lennox.

Mostly, this production suffered from the "Wouldn't it be cool if..." school of directing. Wouldn't it be cool if the witches ran around with a video camera and there were TV monitors in the set to project what they were filming? Wouldn't it be cool if the guys wore modern clothes but carried giant broadswords? Wouldn't it be cool if Lady Macbeth was over-the-top sexy? But none of these ideas has anything to do with the other, or worse, with Shakespeare's text.

To make matters worse, the guy we cast as Macbeth was very good in contemporary plays, but had no sense of Shakespeare's language and was notoriously bad at memorizing lines. The only emotion he displayed in "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" was wishing the damn speech would be over.

The only way to make up for this mess was to stage an awesome sword fight at the end (swords purchased for $40 at BargainBlades.com--I kid you not), and it was pretty great, except for the fact that each night Macbeth and Macduff got more aggressive, and sloppier. On the last night the handle of Macbeth's sword got knocked askew from the blade--if we'd run another weekend, there would've been some major injuries. (This, by the way, is the reason behind the "Curse of the Scottish Play": people think they can perform Macbeth without much rehearsal, but there are too many scenes with the potential to cause accidents!)

Twice burned, four times shy... so I was a little uncertain what I'd think of Vassar's Macbeth, which ran last weekend. Still, I had reason to be hopeful: Vassar is usually good at straight-up, respect-the-text Shakespeare, and eight senior girls (that is, a ton of my friends) had all the major roles. Yes, it was an all-female Macbeth!

I doubt that Macbeth will ever be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays--it doesn't seem to have the depth of Hamlet or Lear--but of course there's great stuff in it. Besides the passages that everyone mentions, I believe that Act 4, Scene 3, where Macduff learns of the murder of his family, must be some of the most emotionally moving writing that Shakespeare ever did:
ROSS Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound

That ever yet they heard.
MACDUFF Hum! I guess at it.

ROSS
Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughter'd: to relate the manner,

Were, on the quarry of these murder'd deer,

To add the death of you.
MALCOLM Merciful heaven!
What, man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;

Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.
MACDUFF My children too?
ROSS Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.
MACDUFF And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too?
ROSS I have said.
MALCOLM Be comforted:
Let's make us medicines of our great revenge,

To cure this deadly grief.
MACDUFF He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?
MALCOLM Dispute it like a man.
MACDUFF I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now!
My friend who played Macduff was perfectly cast--her greatest skill as an actress is to combine vulnerability and deep inner strength. I cast her in a staged reading of one of my plays because of this, and it's also what Macduff needs.

The passage I quoted also gets at a theme of Macbeth that this production highlighted: what it means to be a man. ("Dispute it like a man." "I shall do so/But I must also feel it as a man.") With women in all the roles, you paid more attention when the characters talked about being men, or when Lady Macbeth cried "Unsex me here" and suggested that Macbeth was a sissy if he wouldn't kill Duncan. Not that this part of the play was over-emphasized--but it gave you something to think about after it was done.

The theatre was set up in the round, with very few props; still, there were some amazing stage pictures. The gigantic doors at one end of the theatre (wide enough to drive a car through) were used to great effect in the Porter scene, and also for the parade of Banquo's kingly descendants. (This scene did not appear in the other two Macbeth productions I've seen, but was chilling here.) The witches' cauldron was a trap door that glowed with unearthly light. There is also a spiral staircase in one corner of the theatre leading to an elaborate system of catwalks above, which meant that Macbeth could do "If 'twere done when 'tis done" hanging spotlit from a ladder, Macduff could come clattering down the staircase after discovering Duncan's murder, and Lady Macbeth could appear as a haunting white-clad figure on the catwalks for her sleepwalking scene. (However, I wished I didn't have to crane my neck so much, and could see her facial expressions better!)

The battle scenes, with short swords and heavy shields, were awesome--every actress participated, and at the cast party they wore their bruises, and newfound muscles, with pride.

My friend who played Macbeth has been impressing everyone since freshman year. Two years ago, she was a magnificent Juliet: she has an instinct for Shakespeare, a melting and lyrical voice, and carries herself beautifully. So in one sense, she's a counterintuitive choice for the role of Macbeth, but on the other hand, she's the only girl in our year who could've done it. And she's the first Macbeth I've seen treat the play as a tragedy. Her "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" (obviously, my litmus test for Macbeths) was full of aching sorrow and regret...though maybe a little too delicate to be "ideal" for this warrior-king.

I still have a few issues with Macbeth, though more with the script than this generally thoughtful and well-acted production. There are just so many thanes running around, delivering exposition or filling out the crowd, but not developing character. Say "Rosencrantz," "Osric," "Fortinbras," and you get a clear mental image of the character's personality. Say "Ross," "Lennox," even "Malcolm," and you can identify the scenes in which they appear, but not what kind of person they are.

Still, congrats to all the Macbeth ladies--you've left me, finally, with a pleasant memory of this play!

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