By William Shakespeare
Atlantic Theatre Festival
Wolfville, August 2000
The challenges "the Scottish play" offers a company are so numerous and daunting that I've pretty well given up on seeing an all-round satisfactory production, and nowadays I'll settle for an imaginative and committed attempt and a few well-realized scenes. Thus when I entered the Atlantic Theatre Festival house my hopes weren't very high, and I have to admit I wasn't encouraged by my first look at Patrick Clarke's set -- a large oblate moonlike image on the back wall, five tall irregular "standing stones" with vaguely trapezoidal sides, and two matching staircases up either side of the thrust stage to acting spaces to the left and right of the stage. It looked, underthe pre-show lighting, rather like an amateur company's attempt to be daringly abstract.
But from the entrance of the witches I found myself entirely engaged in the production, and by halfway through the first act I was lost in the play as I haven't been since the first time I saw it, almost three decades ago, just after spending a semester studying it, performed by a travelling company of the RSC. By the end I had come to see the set as one of the most powerfully useful I've seen Shakespeare played on.
In some measure I think this was because the production -- director,cast, and set, sound and lighting designers -- had lit on an approach to the play that solved most of the play's structural and conceptual problems (and let us ignore most of the others), and gave the cast a framework in which to place their various roles.
Central to this approach was downplaying the "supernatural" issues in the play, in favor of a view of Macbeth and his wife that was much more naturalistic than I've usually seen. The weird sisters -- who pose one of the main problems with the script, in the sense that the "who the hell are these people?" question needs to be answered somehow -- were armed and costumed rather like the rest of the soldiers we see on stage, and indeed regularly showed up in the battles, unrecognizable until they doffed their headgear and revealed their woad-tattooed faces. In a way, they seemed to be naturalized into the pervasive context of war and violence in the script. They're almost a function of that context. It was easy to imagine that Macbeth, already up to his ankles in blood and immersed in "strange images of death," conceived the idea of knocking off Duncan and taking the crown simply as a consequence of the dehumanizing effects of war.
The later "consultation" with the sisters, a scene which most productions I've seen simply given up on, apparently saying something like: we've got to do it, because Shakespeare wrote it, because it's got the kickers for the end of the play (the equivocal prophesies about Birnam Forest and "no man of woman born") in it, and even though the Bard probably wrote most of it to ingratiate himself with James I. So let's cut it as much as we can and get it over with. This production, however, treats it as a nightmare. Macbeth has fallen asleep on his throne, and in the often-cut Hecate scene as well as the consultation one, the witches are clearly nightmare figures, mounted on ten-inch platform shoes, with five-foot long forearms, lurching about in, well, nightmarishly awful postures under brilliantly spooky lighting, especially during the "show!" segments (I wasn't so sure the tracking spotlights actually solved the problem of the pageant "line of kings" that Macbeth describes, though). At the end of the scene, a slaplighting change back to normal finds Macbeth on the floor in front of his throne, alone. All in his head, that. And at the end, with Macbeth's head on a pike planted center stage and Malcolm the rest of the boys on their way to Scone for a coronation, three soldiers are left by the grisly pike.They remove their headgear, and we recognize them. Fade.
It's also important that here the play was not taken as a story about the making of a bad decision, but as one about the consequencesof a bad decision. This is an important distinction. It makes Macbeth less a classical tragedy and more a modern one (perhaps, technically, not a tragedy at all); it presents us with a Macbeth who's really already a regicide before the witches ever pop up along his path. This interpretation doesn't have to blink the regular references to the Macbeths' previous conversations about "corporate advancement," and it allows Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth, to find wonderfully practical, immediate, and circumstantial motives for their speeches and actions. Both found ways to make their crucial speeches as human and affecting (and unhistrionic) as I've heard them. Not "Great Acting" at all, thank heaven.
And finally, in this production more than any I've seen the play is centrally about what it means to be a man. That theme is there in the script,of course, for sure -- from "I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more, is none" to the exchange between Malcolm and MacDuff ("Dispute it like a man." "I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man") to Malcolm's sudden, authoritative, "kingly" manhood in his last speech. There's no doubt that Shakespeare would not have been at all surprised to see this identified as a central concern of the play. But this time I heard it much more frequently in the language than I usually do, and more than ever before I heard it as a consideration of what's appropriate to a man as opposed to a woman rather than what's appropriate to a man considered as the default case of humanity.
This may have been triggered by the extra stress laid on the trans-gendered nature of the witches -- not just their "beards" but their uniforms and their role on the battlefield. However it happened, Lady Macbeth's plea for the gods to "unsex" her, and her insistence that if Macbeth were a man he wouldn't be such a wuss about a little blood and betrayal, and all the stuff about Macbeth "putting on manly readiness" and being "unmanned" by Banquo's ghost, become central not just to the theme, but to the action of the play. At the end of the first act (the break is not taken till after the Banquo's ghost banquet scene), it seems clear that Lady Macbeth has created her view of a "man" -- and it's not at all what she had in mind. Her Frankenstein monster takes her off stage by the scruff of the neck. It's The Man in charge now, and we're all going to have to face the consequences.
All this conceptual coherence produced a version of the play which, even though not every part received a stellar performance, and not every directorial decision was brilliant, and even though occasionally it was not at all clear what the crowd of soldiers or courtiers on the stage were actually doing (there was rather a lot of pageant-style standing about) held together wonderfully, and allowed you to attend to Macbeth as a play rather than as a collection of performances, and to the language as language rather than stuff between a set of verbal arias.
Both David Jansen, as Macbeth, and Kristina Nicoll, as his Lady, turn in finely honed, understated and effective performances that nicely direct our attention to what they're saying and doing, and why, rather than to how wonderfully wrought the language is and how profound their emotions are. I was particularly struck by the way Jansen -- whose solidity of build and presence made him a much more soldierly Macbeth than I've often seen -- made the "great arias," especially the "tomorrow, and tomorrow,and tomorrow" one, which can seem an interpolation of stentorian metaphysical speculation into a bloody siege, seem sensible, considered utterances that a person in a real situation might say, or think.
And Nicoll's Lady Macbeth, similarly, says what she says out of practical human situations. Even the wonderfully histrionic "unsex me here" speech seemed less an invocation of the supernatural than an inspirational lecture for herself. I particularly liked her astonishment and panic at her husband's crackup at the banquet scene (this production left Banquo's stool empty, so we shared hers and the guest's view of Macbeth's "unmanning"), and her helplessness in the face of his new "manhood" when, after the banquet,he drags her offstage muttering, "We are yet but young in deed."
Although there were members of the cast who were less steady (I found Michael Keating's Banquo uncertain and a bit unclear, and Robert Seale's Macduff rather more programmatic than necessary, for instance) and although the second act remains something of a hodgepodge (the scene in which MacDuff's family is murdered, necessary as it is to the motivation -- and to Shakspeare'sattempt to make sure we all know what a villain that awful Macbeth was-- always seems arbitrarily added, as does the long (here, as usual, cut mercilessly) disquisition on kingship between Macduff and Malcolm -- it was possible simply to sail past them, and the arbitrary cross-cutting of the battle scenes, to the strangely and movingly ambivalent scenes of the surrounded Macbeth, desperately clinging to his last pathetic hopes,and knowing that there's no point in going on even if the prophecy turns out right and he can't be killed. Perhaps not so oddly, I thought of Beckett:"I can't go on. I'll go on."