Macbeth is a dark play – it may, perhaps, be one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, at least in terms of its pessimistic view of how morally corrupting the ambition for power can be. Its sinister atmosphere is conjured by the weird sisters at the very beginning of the play, when they chant “fair is foul and foul is fair” – a deeply cynical line that aptly encapsulates the murkiness of the play’s moral landscape.
The world of Macbeth on stage at PICT Classic Theatre is likewise a dark one. Dark brown is the reigning tone in this world: the costumes are brown, headdresses are brown, and the set consists of steps and plinths and crags in a range of shades of brown. Occasionally the upstage cyc glows with color, and there are flashes of white and red in the costuming (in particular, among the witches), but for the most part the scenic world is very somber, a place of deep shadows and fog, a kind of perpetual evening. It’s quite stunningly lit by Cat Wilson, but at times the scene felt a little too dark – a few more lumens on the actors’ faces would have made telling the (similarly dressed) characters apart a bit easier. Overall, however, the gloomy color palette and sinister atmospheric lighting is an astute choice, given that the play opens with the rout of King Duncan’s enemies (a battle from which Macbeth emerges a hero) and ends with Macbeth’s head on a spike. In other words, this production doesn’t try to frame the story in terms of a kingdom plunged from light into darkness (a tempting misread of the play’s mythical structure), but rather in terms of an already dark and bloody kingdom, full of treachery and mistrust, descending into even darker times. Duncan may have been a “good” king, but his power also rested on murdering his enemies, and at play’s end Malcolm’s return to power will be purchased with blood as well. The dark mood of this play derives as much from the fact that it is but one episode in a longer cycle of tyrannic bloodshed as from its insight into the psychology of ambition, and the design scheme’s dark and monochromatic tone underscores the cyclical nature of power and violence.
Director Alan Stanford has made some smart and effective choices in the interpretation and staging of the text. In particular, he’s found inventive ways to make the witches weird and magical. They seem to emerge out of the scenery at the beginning of the play and then melt back into it when they “disappear into the air,” using their brown cloaks to reveal and hide themselves, and their chanting of those all-too-familiar incantations is nicely defamiliarized by unusual rhythms and stresses. Moreover, the theatricality of their final scene, with Hecate, is particularly lovely: they form a series of small tableaux to represent the three conjured apparitions, using their bright red gloves to create and accentuate elements like the blood and the crown. Stanford also seems to have put a good deal of emphasis on ensemble work in the production; it feels less like a play about Macbeth himself than about the world of Macbeth. That’s not to take away from David Whalen’s very intelligent and nuanced performance in the leading role, but rather to give credit to the other many excellent members of the ensemble who give this production its “wicked” Game of Thrones-like vibe, in particular Patrick Jordan (hard to recognize – in a good way – as Macduff), Martin Giles (as the porter, the comic relief in the play), and Karen Baum (as a scarily flexible Hecate).
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