Dark Shadows

Macbeth

We saw the Breath of Kings sequence at the Tom Patterson Theater—a simple, barn-like structure on the Avon River which became a festival venue in 1971.  (Patterson was a journalist who had the idea for the festival in 1952, hoping to develop something new for the town’s economy following the departure of the railroad industry.)  Macbeth, by contrast, was at the Festival Theater, a much larger and more impressive building, in a park overlooking the river, surrounded by flower gardens, with a gift shop, a lounge, and glossy video presentations on technical aspects of the season’s productions.  The building was designed to look like a tent, in memory of the festival’s earliest years, and it features a beautiful thrust stage in dark, polished wood, three steps high, with a large balcony supported by wood posts and flanked by curved staircases.

This Macbeth was a mainstage show—in every way bigger and more impressive (and more traditional) than The Breath of Kings.  The lighting was generally dark, brooding.  The set was full of moss, dead branches, uncanny hanging shapes.   There were claps of thunder, distant shrieks, and eerie bass notes.  The actors wore rough, shaggy period costumes and exhibited a trace of a Scottish burr here and there.  The weird sisters were grotesque, robed crones, stirring a cauldron, their faces half-hidden in darkness.  Macbeth was tortured and ambitious, Lady Macbeth desperate not to miss her chance. There were striking, remarkable, even breathtaking effects and transitions.  For example, after the three murderers chased Banquo and Fleance down off the stage and into the aisle, there was a momentary cut to black and then a dramatic burst of light and sound to introduce the banquet, already fully in progress.  Banquo’s ghost appeared from nowhere a few minutes later—he must have stepped from behind servants, but it was like a magic trick—and the mechanics of Macbeth’s terrified vision, his movement in and out of the feast, were handled seamlessly.   In another spectacular scene, the weird sisters hung Macbeth from a tree and anointed him with blood as they showed him the future kings of Scotland.  Sound was deployed and calibrated with great skill throughout, both electronically and on stage, as characters shouted or fought or cried “All hail!” in unison.   There was brilliant stage fighting in the final battle, particularly between Macbeth and Macduff, with sword and shields.  (I meant to say that this was a noticeable feature of Breath of Kings, too.  Hal and Hotspur battled up and down that long stage, handling heavy swords and long spears at the same time.)  The acting was assured, professional, impeccable, up and down the cast.  This was an excellent production, in every way.

But still.  It left me cold, finally—Lisa, too–and I’m not completely sure why.  Is it perhaps that the play is too familiar—overexposed—and so has lost some of its force?  Perhaps.  And then there was the relatively white bread nature of this production, strong as it was: at every turn, the expected thing, visually and thematically; the dark castle; Lady Macbeth in a nightgown, wringing her hands; Macbeth center stage, grasping at an invisible sword or holding a bloody one; Macduff, bewildered by grief (“All my pretty ones?”); the witches scowling into the cauldron.

But I have repeatedly had the experience of being moved  by material just as familiar—by Richard II and As You Like It just this week, in fact—so that can’t be the whole story.  I find myself thinking of Jayne Decker saying, after a rehearsal, that there was just no energy in a scene—or, conversely, of the increased power and force—energy—I have felt from other actors when we finally found ourselves in front of an audience, after weeks of playing to empty seats.   What I am talking about is in some sense ineffable, impossible to describe.   But it comes from an irrational place, deep down; it is communal, interpersonal, transformative; it is a kind of fire.  Somehow, I felt this energy all through The Breath of Kings; I believed every word the actors were saying; they seemed up, consistently, for six hours.  But it was missing, a least for me, in Macbeth, in spite of the quality of the production.   Lisa said that for her the power in Breath of Kings came from the language—from the characters, speaking–but in Macbeth it came largely from the set, the sounds, the dramatic effects—and I would agree.

Still, in spite of these reservations, I was very glad to have seen the play, and I have to say a word in praise of the two principal actors—Ian Lake as Macbeth and Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth.   They gave accomplished, professional performances, and who knows why the unknowable black magic of theater did not occur for one gray-haired person in the orchestra, off to the side? In Pellerin’s opening scene, reading a letter from Macbeth and then calling on spirits to “unsex [her] . . ./And fill [her] from crown to toe topful/Of direst cruelty,” she was electric, in exactly the way I’ve been trying to describe—and I can still hear the anguished tones of her “To bed, to bed, to bed” after the sleepwalking scene.   And Lake delivered the “Tomorrow” speech slowly, with a beautiful, understated desperation, emphasizing the repetition and monotony in the lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
Unto the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I have seen Macbeths who became so shrill and unhinged in the earlier speeches that they had no subtlety or introspection left for this moment in Act V.  But Lake made it the highlight of his performance.

Finally, walking back to the car, Lisa and I wondered if we just weren’t ready, on this night, for so much  darkness.  Macbeth is so despairing—so much evil, so little redress—and perhaps we couldn’t go there.  As the victorious forces shouted “Hail King of Scotland!” and Malcolm restored order at the end, the weird sisters looked covertly out at the audience, sneering, unconquered.   We went and had a drink at the Queen’s Hotel.

—Dan Gunn

 

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