Whether you got As or Fs in high school English class, you surely remember the high points of Macbeth. The three witches. (“Double, double toil and trouble.”) Banquo’s ghost. (“Never shake thy gory locks at me.”) Lady Macbeth sleepwalking and scrubbing her hands. (“Out, damned spot!”) You know the lines and how the story goes so it’s just a question of how the actors do it.
We went to opening night of the Great Lakes Theater production of Macbeth and we were transported, dear readers. We never wished we were in a multiplex with special effects and film editing. Let us tell you about it.
Before the GLT Macbeth actually starts, you can’t help but notice the set. GLT’s program note calls it “a fixed stage, reminiscent of the Globe Theater.” Just as they told us in high school, it looks like a stage protruding from the back of a multi-story English inn. There’s a second-floor balcony that extends the width of the stage. At the center of the mainstage there’s a portal opening onto a small, inner stage. And, as we learn later, trap doors in the floor of the mainstage make for surprising entrances and exits. “Old school,” you say, “but how does it serve the play?” Excellently!
The witches, the three weird sisters, have the first lines in the play and their prophesy sets the whole bloody tragedy rolling…
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!
… so let us describe how GLT’s witches use the “fixed stage.” At the very beginning of the play, the sound of thunder precedes a flash of bright light that illuminates the three witches looking at us from the balcony, directly confronting us. Then there’s the sound of crows and the sisters are wheeling about the main stage in their black cloaks as if they were themselves corvids. They each hold walking sticks, hiking poles, in both hands and these serve to extend their cloaks into wings, to anchor them to the floor, or to strike the floor in punctuation.
A very effective first scene! We pause to acknowledge scenic designer Russell Metheny, sound designer Matthew Webb and lighting designer Rick Martin. We don’t see a choreographer in the program note so apparently the three witches, Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick and Meredith Lark, provided the dances themselves.
How does GLT use their fixed stage in Act III, Scene IV when the embodiment of Macbeth’s tortured conscience, the Ghost of Banquo, appears and disrupts the banquet? In GLT’s Macbeth, Banquo’s ghost makes an unexpected initial appearance in the inner stage. That small space is filled with fog, brightly lit to a brilliant white. Emerging from the fog, the witches in their black cloaks flank Banquo in his white shroud, a chilling sight.
Like the Globe, the Hanna Theatre has trapdoors through which the Ghost of Banquo and the witches enter and exit, trapdoors that open silently, served by lifts that operate very smoothly. But stage machinery can be a blessing or a curse. The old Radio City Music Hall used to make Vic laugh at the way stage machinery routinely overwhelmed the show, but in this production of Macbeth, the stage machinery serves the play.
Lynn Robert Berg made us laugh in Twelfth Night but as Macbeth he returns to the same rich vein he mined in Richard III, the role of the murderous tyrant. Richard was much better at deceit than Macbeth, whose lies reveal rather than conceal his crimes, but both Richard and Macbeth share a terrible willingness to commit murder in order to advance toward the throne. As both Richard and Macbeth, Berg achieves a chilling credibility.
The role of Lady Macbeth often goes to a “mature actress.” Judith Anderson won two Emmy awards for performances of Lady Macbeth when she was 57 and 63 years old. But there’s another way to cast Lady Macbeth which we find more credible, as a younger woman with sex appeal as well as ruthless ambition. We see from her bio that GLT’s Erin Partin has played many romantic leads and we remember how she used her glamorous looks to comic effect as Princess of France in GLT’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which she caused King Ferdinand of Navarre to instantly forget his solemn vow to eschew the company of women. As Lady Macbeth, Partin shows us a darker side of the siren. Bringing out the worst in her man is what she does best.
Need a subject for your high school term paper on Macbeth? Two hot topics in 16th century England played a prominent part in Macbeth, witchcraft and equivocation.
As Shakespeare knew well, King James I fancied himself an expert on witches. James had written a learned treatise on the subject and executed thousands of suspected witches in Scotland and England. Shakespeare’s presentation of witches as a malevolent force in Macbeth surely found favor with James.
Macbeth provided a popular primer on the use and abuse of equivocation, a hot topic in 16th century England as recusant English Roman Catholics sought ways to continue practicing their religion while avoiding discovery and punishment.
For those of you fond of Celts in kilts; there are no tartans — but who knew utility kilts came in so many utilitarian colors.
We watched Great Lakes Theater’s Macbeth on Sat 3/31. The show ran through Sun 4/15.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas