By Tristan Lejeune
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of Macbeth is visually stunning, aurally arresting, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.
But I’m afraid to say the show is overly obsessed with matters political — at the expense of the personal and even supernatural themes the playwright so eagerly and gorily explores. Director Liesl Tommy and her designers keep their focus squarely on the middle distance; government, rebellion, and the societal forces that benefit from exploitative upheaval fascinate them. They’re less interested in psychology. Or witches.
That’s a bloody shame because, far more than the soothsayer in Julius Caesar or the ghost in Hamlet, the spiritual world takes a very active hand in the ambitious, murderous plots of Lord and Lady Macbeth (played here by Jesse Perez and Nikkole Salter). To the pagan Thane of Glamis — and to Christian theatre audiences in Jacobean England — God was not only a metaphysical certainty, he was a player. He could speak, he could toy with, he could literally damn.
STC has transposed Macbeth from medieval Scotland to 21st century Africa (love it), replaced scrolls and messengers with smartphones (uh-huh, go on), filled the army with automatic weapons and vaguely Islamic headgear (sure, OK), and cast the Weird Sisters as king-making American intelligence interlopers (sigh… NO.)
In her directors’ notes, the South African-born Tommy says of Macbeth’s cycle of coups and treason, “Western interests intent on our resources always find a way to install a corrupt puppet and during the spiraling chaos enjoy untold profit.” Guilty as charged. (What exactly would we be exploiting in Scotland proper? Its strategic sheep reserves? But I digress.)
It’s an interesting take on Macbeth the story, but it has a crippling effect on Macbeth the character. Tommy has replaced the godhead (or, at least, the Meddlesome Fortunetellers) with Uncle Sam, but Shakespeare wasn’t interested in puppets. Perez looks rather lost playing our protagonist because the script wants him to be a self-made monster, full of dueling ambition and guilt, but the director has him playing a strawman. And don’t get me started on the oh-so-timely introduction of a Russian-accented spymaster overlord.
By amputating the supernatural elements, STC has grounded Macbeth on the human plane, which was its intention. Attempts to make the man “resonate” with 2017 theatregoers, however, rob him of his twisted, fatalistic nobility. This is the worst character Shakespeare still liked, not some banana republic placeholder.
I could write twin glowing reviews just about the work of set designer John Coyne and costume designer Kathleen Geldard. The scenery is beyond gorgeous. Love the telling vein of gold in the stone backdrop. Love the LED columns, love the wood-paneled floor, love the Jaguar. And Salter must have been thrilled with her outfits as Lady Macbeth: a towering headdress shaped like a centifolia rose for her coronation, a winking Harvard t-shirt for her casual-wear.
With lighting designer Colin Bills joining the fun, these three are the real Weird Sisters, painting sumptuous tableaux in 3-D.
The show’s best and worst instincts come to the fore in Banquo’s banquet scene. As a treat for the eye, it’s a doozie. As a mental breaking point, it’s all wrong. The wrong beats are played for laughs, the wrong lines are shouted cartoonishly … you start to realize that Macbeth, the man, has been left behind long ago.
Everything is politics, people in this city will tell you. Macbeth, however, should be more.