Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last Season's Macbeth at the Guthrie

Macbeth. Dir. Joe Dowling. Perf. Barbara Bryne, Isabell Monk O’Connor, Suzanne Warmanen, Raye Birk, John Skelley, Benjamin Rosenbaum, J.C. Cutler, Bob Davis, James Noah, Peter Christian Hansen, Tyson Forbes, Erik Heger, Michelle O'Neill, Bill McCallum, Robert O. Berdahl, Sun Mee Chomet, Sam Bardwell, Kris L. Nelson, Nicholas Saxton, Graham Zima, Noah Coon, Charlie Lincoln , Elizabeth McCormick, and Nina Moschkau. Guthrie Theatre Company. Minneapolis. 30 January—3 April 2010.
Photo Credits: Erik Heger (Macbeth) and Michelle O'Neill (Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by Joe Dowling with set and costume design by Monica Frawley.

In thinking about the multitude of ways Macbeth has been played throughout the centuries, I'm reminded of the Macbeth that the Guthrie Theatre produced last season. I saw the play twice, took copious notes, gave an address on the play at the Guthrie, and became swamped with grading. Regrettably, that means that I never wrote a post on what was quite a fine production. To start the process of rectification, let me point out some of the truly marvelous features of that staging.

I saw the show twice, and I'm glad I did. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a good, solid production, but it didn't seem to be much more than that. The second time, it was great. I'm not quite sure what accounts for the difference. Was the audience more attuned to the actors? Were the actors more attuned to the audience? Was the first time through—good though it was—an off-night for the Guthrie?

One difference particularly struck me. On the first night, Macduff delivered the line "He has no children" (IV.iii.216) almost with a scream. The second night, it was almost a whisper. The second was much more effective—the audience immediately recoiled in shock, realizing that nothing could quite answer Macbeth's horrific desecration of Macduff's family.

Other points, briefly considered:
  • The production opens with fog; we see the witches enter, and we imagine that we're going to jump right in to "When shall we three meet again" (I.i.1). Instead, the witches are spectators to the rappelling, AK-47-shooting Scottish infantry who enter next. Then they ransack the corpses. This may give them some motivation for causing chaos in the rest of the play.

  • The Bloody Captain is a mover in the plot—Duncan was about to exit before he was pulled back by the Bloody Captain.

  • Macbeth and Banquo laugh (à la Kurosawa) after the witches depart. They're both uneasy about the predictions that have just been made, and they each want the other to see him regarding the predictions as ridiculous.

  • When we first see Lady Macbeth, she's dressed in white. She undergoes several wardrobe changes, ending up in a blood-red dress. She also changes shoes more than any other Lady Macbeth I've ever seen.

  • The children are bought in early. They flounce about and bounce on the couch before exiting. We're being prepared for the dreadful happenings of IV.ii even in the first act.

  • Fleance and Banquo seem to have an uneasy relationship. This is not the easy-going father / son relationship we usually see. Perhaps this motivates Banquo's not telling Fleance about the prediction (though that may not need any other motivation than secrecy).

  • Lady Macbeth is played as stronger than Macbeth throughout. She is far more the motivating force in this production of the plot.

  • The dagger scene was nicely done. Macbeth lies on his back on the stage while a single, focused spot stands in for the imagined dagger.

  • We get to see the coronation of Macbeth in this production. The choice meant that we were able to see just how unfit for kingship Macbeth was—the robes looked ludicrous on him. This Macbeth was much more a soldier than he his a king.

  • In III.iii (when Banquo meets his end), the director decided to give the line telling Fleance to flee to one of the murderers. But that murderer still stabs Banquo; in fact, he is the first to do so. Is this a question of inconsistency? Or is it a desire on that murderer's part to play the game by the rules? Banquo is fair game, but Fleance is too young to be attacked in this way?

  • The Witches are present at the banquet scene; later, they appear wearing the ball gowns they were wearing at the banquet. And they have tiny, fashionable purses out of which they pull their supplies of eye of newt and so on. The Guthrie has an amazing trapdoor that they opened at that point. The fog swirling all over the stage drifted right over the edges of the rectangular trap, making it look very much like a grave. The witches dropped the contents of their purses into the trap, out of which the apparitions later appeared. There must be a connection between these witches in ball gowns and a brief reference made—sarcastically, in that case—to witches in ball gowns in Slings & Arrows! See below for the reference in question.

  • During the sleepwaking scene, Lady Macbeth is barefoot. I can't remember how many shoe changes she went through—five or six, I think—and this is the culmination of the footwear theme.
The last point involves the final image that the production gave us. I had a number of discussions with students about it, and it was one of those extremely divisive issues. More students hated it than liked it, but those who liked it were vocal.

After Macbeth's downfall, he is raised up—a rope is attached to his ankles, and he's hauled upward, dripping blood the while.

My own reading of that decision was that it simultaneously critiqued and embodied one of Malcolm's closing lines: "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" (V.ix.35). If that's really all the play was about, why did we see it? Yet Malcolm does get to make this pronouncement—both visual and auditory—on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The production shows us a dead butcher while inviting us to consider that such a title is utterly inadequate to describe the soul in anguish, making the wrong decisions, that the play gives us.

The production was quite good; Joe Dowling made his audience think. I can't wait to see what they do with the three Shakespeare plays they're doing this season: A Winter's Tale, Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet.


Suspected origins of the "Witches in Ball Gowns" Device.

Links: The 2010-2011 Season at the Guthrie Theatre.

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