By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Bard on the Beach, Vancouver. June 17-September 3, 2018
“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.” Indeed, though there is too much drumming in Owen Belton’s strong soundscape, though I liked the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy evocative of Scottish Highlands, and the melancholy melody for Lady Macbeth. Gerald King’s lighting design finds it hard to cope with the sunlight pouring in from outdoors in the first half, though by sunset, the colour and mood change naturally. Of course, from the first eerie scream of Lady Macbeth in tandem with that of the Second Witch in the Prologue, it is clear that Chris Abraham’s perspective of this play is jolting. In a set (by Pam Johnson) that pays homage to the open-air Globe in London with pillars (morphing into upper tree branches), mezzanine, and wooden floor with a trap, all grey and white to evoke a cold, stark world that can be menacing and otherworldly, the production is boldly aggressive. The ensemble enters (costumed by Christine Reimer chiefly in in linens, wools, and velvets), and they draw close in hunched kneeling, knocking on the wooden floor as if to summon something as yet unexpressed or made sensible, in addition to stirring a narrative into motion. The knocking grows louder, and erupts into a battle, the noise of which peaks with the simultaneous screams of Lady Macbeth and the Second Witch. The lady’s is more significant: her scream issues from pain and frustration at the loss of her child (marked by an empty cradle that is abruptly removed by soldiers). Her maternal side gone, she must grow a new identity or, at least, the shape of one, with which to affect her dearest partner of greatness’s manhood and existential purpose. This is a world where the three witches (in corseted bodices and boots) are shabby, rough, and ready for war against the natural order. They could be camp-followers or vagrants, and their vocal attack is robust, though far too shrill and unsubtle, grotesque rather than supernaturally eerie. However, director Abraham doesn’t seem to mind this deficiency, electing, instead, to focus on the psychology of the two lead characters, played by Moya O’Connell and Ben Carlson, two superbly gifted and charismatic performers who give the production its greatest Shakespearean lift.
This is certainly a valid way of tackling this tragedy about two characters who lose their humanity in the cause of overweening ambition. The production never trivializes the private, domestic life of Macbeth and his lady. When they embrace and kiss after his return from heroic war victory, the sexual current is palpable. And she is all tactility, tracing his facial outline with her fingers, making him feel her support to correct his infirm purpose. Two heavy doors open and close on what could be other castle rooms and locations—places where malign plots can be laid. From this seed, an entire forest of human folly and self-destruction grows, haunted by horrors from the natural and supernatural realms. The problem, however, is that the title character (husband, soldier-hero, disillusioned poet) shrinks rather than grows in his humanity, ending up cornered, desperate, and fated to destruction. Ben Carlson, shaggily bearded, robust in voice and manner (while being clear in his speech and action), is a marvel of mounting excitement, never merely booming for sound and fury, but a man who begins to take himself and the witches’ prophecy too seriously until his lack of remorse, married to his repeated crimes, shrivels his humanity. Sometimes one feels in the soliloquies that the actor wishes Macbeth could be as philosophic as Hamlet, but Carlson’s Macbeth, while questing at times for intellectual security, is seized by fits of bewilderment and guilt. Wracked with convulsions of nauseous self-doubt, he is stunned and stunning in the dagger vision scene, knocking on the floor as if to be emphatic on “There’s no such thing.” And when apprised of his wife’s death, he takes one of the longest pauses imaginable before the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, clearly demonstrating a man who has been diminished and possibly lost to himself. The actor is not always well supported by the cast and on one occasion by his director. The banquet scene is not as strong as it should be (with a wavering blue light on Banquo’s ghost that often misses the actor), and Abraham’s use of kettle drums often intrudes on important dialogue. Macbeth’s revisit to the weird sisters, when he sees more ghosts of his victims, is pallid and lax. But these deficiencies wane whenever Moya O’Connell shares the stage with Carlson.
This pairing is the best I have seen on stage for this play, far more vivid, more powerful, sexier, more profound in the psychological dimension than any of the Stratford Festival pairings to date. Beautiful, sensuous, and sensual, Moya O’Connell makes a great partner for Carlson, etching the deep physical connection she feels for a man who cannot give her more children even as he plans to kill the children of his most dangerous rivals. The thunder in her performance comes from her dramatic intensity rather than vocal volume and mass, and the actress clearly exposes the “spine” of Lady Macbeth, whom she portrays as a woman who keenly wishes to support and spur her husband but who is ultimately devastated by discovering how far apart they really are morally and metaphysically. Her opening scene is thrilling as she reads her husband’s letter and then invokes the dark powers to unsex her. Femininity shoved aside for a while, she concentrates on serving him. Her womb empty, she fills herself with hungry ambition but not merely for herself, but when her husband wades deeper and deeper into gore and unimaginable horror, she shrinks back in guilt and revulsion, vividly representing these passions in her sleepwalking scene that is calm and spastic in turns.
It is a pity that not many of the cast make worthy supporting players. For my taste, only Andrew Wheeler’s Macduff and Scott Bellis’s Duncan stand out, though there are moments of serviceable competence by Jeff Gladstone as Malcolm, Nadeem Phillip as Donalbain, Craig Erickson as Banquo, Harveen Sandhu as Witch 3 and blood-lipped Kate Besworth as Witch 2. Kayvon Khoshkam has flashes of equivocal wit as the drunken Porter who rises from the trap (hell?), but everyone should observe and learn from O’Connell and Carlson who make of their roles compasses into hearts of darkness, from the first knocking in the prologue to the knocking within Macbeth’s heart that unfixes reason, to the knocking at the gate, and the ultimate knocking to seal (echoing De Quincey) how time is annihilated while new pulses of life are beginning to beat again with the coronation of a new king.