Russ Hunt's Reviews

Macbeth
By William Shakespeare

Imperial Theatre, Saint John
3 March 1995


It's been about 400 years since it was written. About 300 since its writer has been acknowledged as Top Poet, as THE writer of the English language. And over 100 since he acquired absolute dominion over the curricula of English courses.

For most of that time, Shakespeare has represented the challenge every theatre company feels it must meet; and Macbeth -- this forbidding domestic tragedy of a regicide and his ambitious wife, of the fatal lure of power and a few flashes of virtue and sympathy in the blood and darkness -- has been among the most tempting and dangerous of his works.

Whenever the challenge is taken up anew, we have another chance to see why it's worth trying again. It's admirable and courageous of the Saint John Theatre Company to have taken up the challenge for us. It's worth watching any group of actors engage themselves and us with this rich and resonant text, and with these dark and enigmatic characters.

There are some good ideas in this production.

It is a good idea to leaven the local company with some guest artists, professionals like Julie-Kate Olivier, who plays Lady Macbeth, Tom Kerr, who directs, and Peter Smith, who designed the production. It is a good idea to have staged it on a field of war, invoking scenes we've all seen on television of devastated urban landscapes and refugee children. It is a good idea to bring Shakespeare back to the magnificent Imperial Theatre.

Unfortunately, there are some bad ideas as well.

The most serious is the idea that what the text says doesn't much matter, and has no consequences for people's actions. This problem runs through the production, from small matters to large ones. For a small instance, Macbeth says to his lady, "Come, we'll to sleep," but they stay for a blackout. Or large one: the entire scene around the apparition of Banquo's ghost depends on there being a banquet, with guests at a table, but in this production everyone stands around as though at a cocktail party. This renders half the lines in the scene meaningless: Why would Ross invite Macbeth to sit when there are no chairs? Why does Macbeth drink to the general joy of the whole table when there's no table in the room?

This is not a minor matter, not simply a misplaced table or something. It has consequences for the way the audience and the company attends to the language. And it is, after all, the language that drives this play and holds it together. Its plot isn't very complex or very convincing, and many of its characters are cardboard cutouts. What it has, undeniably, is the wonderful, hypnotic flow of some of the most wonderful soliloquys in the language, and the patterns of language which make us realize, right from the first words he speaks, that Macbeth is doomed to make his fatal mistake. If we're invited to ignore that language, the consequences are dire.

If we haven't seen the language as the central factor in the play, there will be consequences. By the end, when Macduff faces off against Macbeth for the crown, we'll see it as just another wrestling match, not the unavoidable catastrophe of a promising life gone wrong. If we haven't cared intensely when Lady Macbeth assures her lord that "What's done is done," we'll never notice that, later, Macbeth himself hopes that something done like a murder could actually be over and done with; or that, even later, the lady herself laments the fact that "what's done cannot be undone." These patterns are not just games with language, they're what drive the whole play. To invite us to ignore the language is to invite us not to care. This production, unfortunately, does that, and by the middle of the second half it's lost most of its momentum.

There are, however, some moments worth waiting for. Julie-Kate Olivier made me believe in Lady Macbeth's guilt-ridden sleepwalking; even more, she made me believe that it was an act of courage for her to invoke the ministers of darkness to strengthen her resolve. Robert McLardy, as Banquo, convinced me that it was possible to be tempted by the prophecy of greatness and still resist it.

I was disappointed, however, in Stephen Tobias' Macbeth. It's a tremendously difficult role, and he gave it a valiant try, but I was never convinced that he had a clear model of what his Macbeth's motives were. The first two acts of this play -- in most modern productions it's the first half -- constitute one headlong, compelling rush to destruction. To become involved, we need to have a clear sense of just what Macbeth thinks he's doing, and why. Tobias, however, seemed content to let the language take him back and forth, from "I yield to that suggestion" to "we will proceed no further in this business" to "I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat," with little sense of struggle or difficulty.

There are some important technical and design difficulties, too. The three children who arise from the rubble at the beginning -- and who I expected, and hoped, might turn out to be the witches -- don't return, and, indeed, the whole powerful invocation of Bosnia or a modern war scene is abandoned by the end. The sound system, impressive as it is technically, rendered the knocking at the door during the Porter's scene after the murder singularly uninsistent. In spite of the fact that there is a very large cast, the stage seemed, often, too large for the production. The placing of characters on the stage for instance, during the early scene in which Macbeth meets King Duncan often seemed arbitrary and static, more like a pageant than a military operation, a party, or an arrival at a castle gate.

Flawed as it is, there are moments of visual power and poetic clarity in this production that make it worth seeing. I would not, however, count on it to change the mind of a student who thinks Shakespeare's the sort of thing your eleventh grade English teacher says is good for you. People who already care intensely about such matters will find much to engage them in this production; I'm afraid, though, that that student will not.


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