Everybody thinks they know the story of Macbeth’s tragic downfall. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies by a good measure, “Macbeth” is an unrelenting and bloody juggernaut full of twists and turns, steeped in the macabre and the paranormal. A new production of “Macbeth” at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield provides a vigorous reminder of why this tragedy is so particularly well-built for the stage.
Director Stephen Strenio has a clear vision here, one that is true to Shakespeare, but simultaneously offers fresh challenges to the well-known narrative. While the story may be familiar, CTC’s enactment is jarring. In this production, the condensed and action-packed story unfolds in an episodic, almost montage-like manner, drawing attention to the play’s strange and quirky structure in a way that a studied reading cannot. The extreme compression of time and space, already a theme in the text, is reinforced by the live performance.
CTC’s take on the tragedy is more foul than fair. The show emphasizes the conflict and violence, as well as the oppressive presence of the supernatural. This is also a production that is befitting the season. The opening moments evoke the melancholy and bleakness of an autumn eventide. Design elements are unified in conjuring a palpable atmosphere of decomposition and destruction. Under Strenio’s vision, something is rotten in the state of Scotland. Far from the heroic land of William Wallace, the setting here is a damp and fetid swamp, a nebulous and irrational hellscape of decay and looming violence.
The stage is set before the show begins. Upon entering the theater, the witches lurk around a bloodied soldier, and the shrieks and groans of battle can be heard. CTC’s set frames the action like a shoebox diorama open on two sides. A catwalk above the stage is supported by a series of posts, giving the actors places to climb and hide. The witches prowl and hang over the action throughout. The set design leaves the spectator with an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism and intimacy, as if the audience is peeping in on action not meant to be witnessed. The harrowing atmosphere is unnervingly underscored throughout the show by Terry Shea’s sound design. Lighting design by Maggie Cady casts the characters in a gloomy and dreamlike light, suspended in a murky place between dusk and dawn.
The set design also enables the show to explore the dueling themes of free will and predetermination with a playfulness that only theater can provide. CTC’s production is dominated by the presence of the three witches (played by Sophie Kreyssig, Rebecca Magnotta and Heron Kennedy) who slither around the stage and loom from above, not only bearing witness but manipulating the action. If the weird sisters are puppeteers, the actors become poor players, mere marionettes. This kind of edgy meta-theatricality is one of CTC’s signature tricks. The three witches also reappear in disguise in multiple roles (including the famous Porter) throughout the show, reinforcing the weight given to the occult. The disguises include grotesque and fleshy masks affixed loosely on the performers’ faces like necrotic tissue.
In this gloomy setting, the balanced cast is at home and comfortable with Shakespeare’s poetry. The language is refreshingly natural and not stylized. The intimacy of CTC’s theater is a distinct advantage here, as the actors can speak in a whisper and still be heard. While the constant presence of the witches provides the skeleton upon which the play is built, the heart and soul of the play revolves around the intense relationship between Macbeth, played by CTC Artistic Director Chris Simpson, and Lady Macbeth, portrayed by Tammy Brown. With a tangible chemistry, the actors feed off one another. Their physicality with each other lays bare their deep psychological interdependence. Simpson and Brown carefully balance their characters’ journeys, allowing their fates to rise and fall in inverse relation to the other. Where Simpson’s Macbeth is at first hesitant and impotent, Brown’s depiction of Lady Macbeth responds decisively as a powerful force of will. Brown’s Lady Macbeth is initially bold and indispensable to her husband, but once the plot to kill Duncan is carried out, finds herself suddenly unmoored from her husband. They can no longer balance each other out. By the end of the production, Brown’s Lady Macbeth becomes a mysterious and unrecognizable shadow of her former self, descending into madness and despair.
Simpson resists a pat reading as a one-dimensional tragic hero. He finds in Macbeth a gentleness, but also an ugly fecklessness and susceptibility to temptation. Macbeth’s ascension to king is portrayed starkly, but Simpson doesn’t allow Macbeth to be pinned down. Ultimately, Macbeth’s tyranny is frustratingly petty and capricious. Macbeth’s response to the death of his wife comes across as a cruel, almost glib moment of existentialist insight where the world’s absurdity is laid bare and an ever-impending sense of death overwhelms.
The episodic structure of the tragedy provides ample opportunities for talented supporting players to command the stage. Christine Cauchon does not waste any opportunity in any of her five roles, but gives a particularly poignant portrayal of Lady Macduff in her brief scene with Ross, played by director Strenio. Ryan Sekac’s Banquo is a perfect foil for Simpson’s Macbeth, but he really shines after Banquo’s death in his reappearances as a zombielike apparition. Aisha Sho provides a beautiful and fluent poetic voice in the small role of Lennox.
CTC’s production of “Macbeth” is no swashbuckling action-adventure story, nor spooky bit of Halloween fun. It is a desolate, tragic vision that offers the audience no comfort. The action of the play is bookended by violent political insurrection and upheaval. The new king, Malcom, is skillfully played by Rico Lanni as an ineffectual and ingratiating politician. Macduff’s vengeance, as portrayed by Ryan Stevenson, is not justice but utter wrath and bloodlust. Macbeth’s fall is consummated in an extended and brutally choreographed fight scene that leaves the audience in shock. The production ends abruptly on a note of horror. After deliberating over violence as a solution to a political impasse, the production chooses not to end with a restoration, but rather comes full circle, threatening an unending cycle of violence and madness.
It is hard not to come away from this show reflecting on the state of the world and reminded of political anxieties. I think that is an aesthetic impact that CTC’s production does not shy away from. CTC’s show may not really be about giving you the Macbeth they want, but the one you need. And it’s a vision that you may want to see twice.