Theater Review: Shakespeare’s Language Shines Through in Modern ‘Macbeth’

  • Robert David Grant, as Macbeth, middle, and Damian Thompson, as Banquo, left, hear the prophesy of the three witches played by Carene Rose Mekertichyan, right, Virginia Ogden, foreground, and Rigel Harris, not pictured, during dress rehearsal of the production of MacBeth at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, Vt. Tuesday, September 27, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/6/2016 2:02:12 AM

Back in my college days, the theater crowd I spent time with wouldn’t so much as whisper the name Macbeth. It was thought to be cursed, and was known only as “the Scottish play.”

That was more than 20 years ago, and in the ensuing years productions of Macbeth seemed awfully scarce, as if the curse had some force. A well-received 1999 production in London was a notable exception.

Lately though, the Scottish play has been nearly inescapable. Multiple productions in London and New York cropped up over the past year, as did a film, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

So Macbeth arrived at Northern Stage last week with some buzz behind it. Shakespeare’s tale of a medieval clan boss who heeds too closely a prophecy that he’ll be king appears in a strikingly contemporary staging that features fine acting, thoughtful direction and technical wizardry. Ultimately, this is a show worth seeing, although its setting in a 21st century war zone made the performance I saw Saturday as much a distraction as a thought-provoking decision.

The shortest, at a little over two hours, and in some respects most transparent of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth was first performed in 1606. As director Stephen Brown-Fried writes in his program notes for the Northern Stage production, Macbeth debuted just after a plague afflicted London and just after the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up Parliament. People were on edge, and in Brown-Fried’s view, Macbeth had an “incredible timeliness” for its first viewers, who were as anxious about unrest, foreign and domestic, as we supposedly are today.

But Macbeth is less about a despot seeking political clout than it is about a man abandoning his principles when the prospect of a higher station crosses his mind.

That prospect arrives in the form of three witches, the weird sisters, in this case three women wearing bloodied fatigues. They tell Macbeth that he’ll become thane of Cawdor, and king. After the former title is bestowed on him in short order, he decides, haltingly, to take action to gain the latter.

“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir,” Macbeth says to himself in an aside. But already he has begun to indulge in a fantasy, to leave the harsh reality of a military man’s life behind.

The best parts of the play are not the war-like beginning and ending, which are set in battlefields that look like contemporary images of the Middle East, but when Macbeth’s conscience is at war with both his own ambition and his wife’s. “We will proceed no further in this business,” he tells his lady. But she pushes him to go through with their plan to kill the king while he’s under their roof, a deed Macbeth has recognized as doubly foul. “You would be so much more the man,” she eggs him on.

As Macbeth, Robert David Grant balances the character’s appearance as a good soldier and skilled leader with his development into a man who’s in over his head. Grant, who grew up in Vershire and is now based in New York, brought a sense of clarity, line by line and scene by scene, to a character who becomes increasingly blurred, to himself and to the audience, as the play goes on.

His scenes with Lady Macbeth, played by Trisha Miller, carry a sexual charge that calls to mind Henry Kissinger’s lasting observation that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Miller plays one of theater’s great monsters with physical grace, but a handful of times, the ends of key lines seemed unclear. Since the language is more than half the reason to see Shakespeare, those few muddied words were a great loss.

The rest of the cast is very good. As Banquo, Damian Thompson provided a strong moral counterpoint to the title character. Thompson is lanky, with exceptionally long hands, and his repeated salutes as he moved through his scene as Banquo’s ghost seemed an outsized gesture of moral rebuke toward his uneasy former brother in arms.

Surrounding the core cast of Equity actors are several young performers with Upper Valley roots, notably Lebanon High grad Rigel Harris, a fearsome presence as the First Witch, and current Lebanon Middle School student Roberto Silva, who plays Banquo’s son, Fleance, with distracted nonchalance. Tessa Francis Cullen, 10, plays Macduff’s daughter, George Colligan, who plays Donalbain and Seyton, grew up partly in Hanover, and Dartmouth College student Virginia Ogden and recent graduate Carene Rose Mekertichyan play the other two witches. All of them more than hold their own, especially young Tessa, whose character delivers a brief speech before being consumed by the play’s smog of violence.

One of the pleasing aspects of this production is how clearly the language comes through, even with the contemporary setting. This is a noisy production, with sounds of gunfire and fighter planes and industrial music. A tower of old televisions, which must have been a nightmare for the technical staff to assemble, dominates the center of the stage, and the images that flicker to life echo the fantasies that spin Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — and modern audiences, too — out of control.

In thinking about the performance, I couldn’t come up with a contemporary analog for Macbeth. What, exactly, are we to glean from the setting in a modern era of machine guns, smartphones, social unrest, heroin and the ever-shrinking news cycle? There’s no easy answer and I think more viewers will be puzzled, than enlightened.

I was struck by the kinship between Macbeth and Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, in which a former soldier out hunting in West Texas finds a fortune in drug money and in seizing it knows that he’s giving up his old life and its certainties. No Country echoes some of Macbeth’s language, including Macbeth’s statement that he bears “a charmed life.”

McCarthy’s hero dies offstage, a diminished person, and Macbeth is that way, too. There’s no catharsis in Macbeth as there is in King Lear or Othello, which feature heroes who falter, but then understand their places in the world. Macbeth falters, but never recovers.

With the Macbeth revivals of the past couple of years, drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s 1955 assessment of the play has been dusted off, and it’s worth bringing up here, too: “Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature,” Tynan wrote.

So it’s left to others to reclaim a moral center. Macduff, played with crackling despair and anger by Avery Glymph, and Malcolm, one of the king’s sons, played by Oakland, Calif., actor Kim Fischer, discuss Malcolm’s perceived faults, and he wonders whether he wouldn’t be worse than Macbeth. But Macduff’s steadfastness and love of country win him over. “What I am truly is thine and my poor country’s to command,” Malcolm says, adopting the position of servitude that Macbeth abandoned in seizing the throne.

Brown-Fried and the many designers working with him have mastered the small details. Banquo’s ghost rising from a column of shadow, maids removing two place-settings originally meant for Banquo and Fleance, and a final entrance, not in the original script before the last fade to black that shows how wars follow from one despot to another; these and other small moments, as well as attention to language make this Macbeth a gripping night of theater.

Macbeth is in production at Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction through Oct. 23. For tickets and information, call 802-296-7000 or go to northernstage.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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