Last Tuesday, I saw William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Liesl Tommy, at Shakespeare Theatre.
I will let you in on wonderful secret: For every mainstage show, Shakespeare Theatre does something called Free Will. On Monday at noon, they offer a certain number of free tickets for that week’s performances. It is a truly fantastic program that allows people like myself, who couldn’t afford to go otherwise, the opportunity to see Shakespeare.
I walked in on Tuesday evening with my free ticket to this beautiful multi-floor venue and entered the theatre to see a set entirely in silver and gray. The back wall was concrete with a gigantic crack running through it. Fabric hung down from the ceiling; when it mixed with the light, it created an eery glow around the stage. The stage itself was raked back and had little indentations throughout. As the play progressed, large fluorescent poles descended from the sky to denote different spacial arrangements and feelings of the characters with their bright, changing colors. I could have watched that set, designed by John Coyne, all night. It was truly an artistic masterpiece. That said, it wasn’t overly useful in helping me understand what was happening. Unfortunately, that was a theme in this production. Let me explain.
The show was set in Northern Africa. The clothing, the casting, and the program told me as much, but I didn’t have time to read the program beforehand. I didn’t receive clear confirmation of the setting until the second act when a map is displayed. Maybe they could have done that upfront?
In addition, the set, while utterly beautiful, didn’t help me pinpoint exactly where we were – it was too abstract with all the concrete and fluorescent tubes.
The costumes, designed by Kathleen Geldard, were divine, absolutely true to North African garb; with bold colors and golden embroidery, they were deeply rooted in reality. The set and lights stood in such stark contrast to that, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing a lot of the time. (One might argue that it’s similar to Macbeth and his Lady’s delusions, but I don’t think the intention was to cause confusion to this magnitude for the audience).
Oh goodness, and the sound. It was designed by Broken Chord. It also made no sense and did not enhance my experience. I wish I could have just watched the costumes, set, and lights with no sound at all.
Another problem was that, although these are classically trained Shakespearean actors, and very good actors in fact, they didn’t make me understand the text. It was as if they were relying on everyone already knowing the story and confusion in the text wouldn’t be a big deal.
In the program, they provide a synopsis, a director’s note, a literary manager’s note, an interview with the director, a section on different productions of the “Scottish” Play that have been set in somewhere other than Scotland, and a note about the costumes. I sat down a few minutes before the play began and I certainly didn’t have time to read all of that. Plays should speak for themselves, or if there are additional words to say about the play, they shouldn’t involve 15 pages of reading before you can understand even the basics. Shakespeare Theatre should not assign the audience required reading before they can comprehend the play.
I believe this was a failing on the part of the director. I know that I won’t understand everything in a Shakespeare play, but good directors will force their actors to make me at least understand the emotion behind the words.
The director just made so many choices. Most of them were strong choices, which is admirable, but most of them created more problems than solutions.
For example, they used cell phones. This isn’t a bad thing, updating Shakespeare to fit the modern age. However, it cut out some of the interaction between characters – they just had a phone conversation instead. It hindered character development and relationship-building and made me care less about the characters.
Because of the more limited interaction, it seemed that the characters went through approximately zero maturation throughout the play. Macbeth (Jesse J. Perez) was a power-hungry maniac from the beginning and never shook that. Lady Macbeth (Nikkole Salter) always seemed completely in control of her faculties.
Another thing. Duncan is a woman in this play, not a man. Having Duncan be a queen isn’t a problem, but it does beg the question: “Why didn’t Lady Macbeth make a run for the throne?” She is clearly the one who sets the plan in motion, she is clearly the more ambitious of the pair. At least in the beginning. Why doesn’t she just ditch her wimp of a husband that she doesn’t seem to love very much anyway? Well, obviously, I know the answer: that’s just not how it was written. Moving on.
The three witches were apparently Western mercenaries who were manipulating African politics. I didn’t get that until the second act. Would have been nice to know from the beginning without having to read the program.
To be clear, I don’t appreciate when plays treat their audience like dummies. However, I thought this Macbeth obfuscated the very basics of the show.
I thought the piece was artful. It could have been an experiential art piece and I would have been much more accepting of it. However, it was play, meant to be understood. And it just wasn’t.
I enjoyed myself, but I have to give this production a 6/10. If you’re going to go see it, read the program beforehand for maximum comprehension.