All Hail Macbeth! The Folger Theatre’s stunning production

March 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

macbeth-playbill.jpg This is the scariest, most formidable Macbeth imaginable. The play begins, in a sense, before it begins, with a lengthy announcement, presumably from the management. The announcer’s spiel is cut short in a way that theatergoers will not soon forget. (I will say no more about this, in case you are lucky enough to have tickets.)

Extreme stagecraft was employed in this production. Sudden loud noises, abrupt appearances and disappearances, blindingly bright strobe lights – and buckets of blood. In the capable hands of directors Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) and Aaron Posner, these elements intensified the focus on Shakespeare’s language and on the anguish of the characters. A collective “Ah!” seemingly arose from the packed house on many occasions. I felt as though I were watching the prototype of tragedy, reduced to its most laserlike capacity to terrify.

macbath.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth is transfixed by “a dagger of the mind.”

The acting is first rate. I admit to a prejudice where Shakespeare performances are concerned: I prefer the actors’ speech to have a British inflection. These were American actors, so they spoke American English. After the first five minutes or so, it ceased to matter. I was mesmerized and stayed that way, right to the end.

As this most inexorable of tragedies unfolded, certain lines of dialog seemed to leap out and hang in the air. Many of them were uttered by that archetype of bad influence, Lady Macbeth:

“The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.

“We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking place / And we’ll not fail.

“Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t.

There she is, giving her hapless husband lessons on how to be evil! But of course all of it catches up with her and overpowers her in the famous sleepwalking scene in Act Five. Here she plaintively voices her amazement:

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

And finally, this line, which for some unaccountable reason chilled me to the bone: “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?”

macbeth1.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes, with Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth

The play’s most famous speech is uttered by Macbeth himself, when he hears of his wife’s death:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These may be the most despairing, nihilistic lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

bloom.jpg In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes: “Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse.” Later in the same paragraph: “He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.”

I think Bloom is saying that because Macbeth seems at first to be a decent sort – decent in the way we like to think ourselves as being decent – that his swift descent into an infamous kind of Hell seems to exemplify a fate that could befall any one of us. Perhaps this accounts for the claustrophobic unease of the viewer caught up in the play’s precipitous downward trajectory.

macbeth200.jpg “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.” The three witches, truly gruesome hags, were played by male actors. The witches are more often referred to as the the weird sisters. shakespeare-garber.jpg In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber tells us that “Wyrd is the Old English word for “fate,” and these are, in a way,classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns. The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man’s life. But the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor merely historical targets of vilification, and superstition; on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive psychological reality of their own.”

The run for the Folger’s production of Macbeth has been extended; tickets are currently almost impossible to get. People are advertising for them on Craigslist. I’m not surprised.

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Addendum, March 11: I meant to mention Thomas De Quincey’s tremendously insightful essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” first published in 1823. In this passage, De Quincey describes the moments that follow Duncan’s murder:

“Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the
entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region
of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady
Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both
are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly
revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a
new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers,
and the murder, must be insulated–cut off by an immeasurable gulph
from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs–locked up and
sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world
of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into
a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without
abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and
suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done,
when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes
away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and
it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made
its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat
again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we
live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had
suspended them.

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