In her director's notes Tina Packer says that Shakespeare & Company's current staging of Macbeth is a response to "the events of the last year-- not just the assault on the WTC and the Pentagon, but all the acts of violence going on in the world... this seemingly uncontrollable desire for power and dominance (often called freedom)". What's remarkable about Shakespeare & Company's modern dress production is that Packer is able to widen her focus to reference whole world at any time between 11th century Scotland and 21st century America while still presenting the play as a single event, every part of which is clearly subordinated to an overarching meta-metaphor about the consequences, wide and deep, of one particular moment in which one man discarded empathy and ethics for the sake of-- what? power, status, wealth, the "ornament of life"?-- what ever masterful fantasy it is that Kingship instances and ambition aims at. Within the security of her rock solid structure of interlocking analogies, director Packer can take astonishing liberties with Shakespeare's play without-- in post-modern fashion-- destroying the Shakespearean moral/aesthetic order, which even when it is manifest in terrible cruelty is experienced as beautiful.
However, one side effect of Packer's widening of focus is to alter what we may expect of the actor in the title role. This is not a myriad-minded Macbeth who draws one into the dark with him, thrilling the auditor with the allure of evil as the Great Challenge. Dan McCleary, physically a big bruiser of an actor, plays a smaller than usual Thane, one who bears little resemblance to the oversized overreachers of Marlowe, or to Shakespeare's antihero Richard III--- or even to the raging giant of a Coriolanus with which McCleary overwhelmed Shakespeare & Company audiences in 2000 and 2001. McCleary's characterization of Macbeth as an ambitious contemporary power seeker is drained of the seductive afflatus of poetry and of the fitful glamour of megalomania. His Macbeth's leadership style is a kind of ill-fitting surface smoothness, beneath which panic and paranoia roil so boisterously that he invites the opposition he fears. We notice this at the earliest possible moment, in I, iii: Macbeth and Johnny Lee Davenport's admirable Banquo are as comfortably at ease with each other post battle as victorious jocks after a Homecoming game. Then comes the Weird prophecy-- not from three particular sisters, here-- which implies that Banquo's issue may be the ultimate winners in the Kingship stakes. Macbeth's body language betrays the change that has come over him. He tries to fake that comradely ease again, but something about his manly embrace sends a chill through Banquo. Davenport's richly transparent good guy of a Banquo is suddenly as alert as a point man on patrol, even while responding to his buddy in a way which he hopes will pass for his former openness. The mere thought of murder-for-gain, "yet fantastical", has already set in motion the reaction which will turn Macbeth's gains to losses.
Macbeth sums up all the excellent reasons he shouldn't do what he is tempted to do within the next scenes' speeches to the gracious and competent Duncan of Michael Hamilton and to his wife (Carolyn Roberts), but his words sound hollow. He is unconvinced of the value of anything outside his dream-- here, his American Dream-- already. Once Macbeth has come to believe that there is a "nearest way" to realize his ambitions only fear makes an impression on him.
When we meet Roberts’s Lady Macbeth it looks as if she has sunk into depression while her husband has been away at war, not just because she has missed him but apparently from something in the recent past that she has not worked through-- she is en disabille in her first scene, and carrying a rag doll that represents either a dead baby or a reversion to childishness. Robert's Lady seems to be bereft of an adult identity. However, Macbeth’s victory letter supplies her with one that she embraces instantly when he calls his wife his "dearest partner in greatness." She buys into the notion of supernatural endorsement in her husband's description of the prophecy, and by that she is energized, her mind bubbling over with plans to reinforce his plans and propel her husband where he wants to go. "Greatness" as a partnership in murder means that once they have teamed up for that goal she will be his mate as fellow warrior as well as wife, and safe from abandonment.
This prospect rouses her so that she leaps ahead to call up demons on her own. Roberts' reading of "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts..." carries with it a sub textual suggestion that "womanly" activities such as giving birth and nurturing are so painfully debilitating that she sees a "masculine" cold blooded murder as therapeutic. "Unsex me here" is an infusion of hope-- her husband needs her, there's a big job to do, and once she has cast off female restraints she'll be uniquely qualified! When Macbeth enters and embraces her, full of pride and satisfaction in his success, he finds his partner as charged up as he is. For a moment it looks as if the couple will pause to appreciate each other as they are, and celebrate their reunion with vigorous sex. But the Lady, like a good junior officer, knows that the team has important deadlines to meet. She is on board, his goal of the golden round is her goal, and she uses all her new-found energy to divert him from the present and its pleasures. Ms. M. can scarcely wait to put on her blood red padded shoulder power suit and do whatever it takes to get her man to Be All That He Can Be.
Too bad. Because although this Lady knows her husband well enough to push his buttons and send him into action, she hasn't a clue as to what sort of monster she will make of him. As a professional soldier and a governing thane, killing has been part of Macbeth's job. How could his homebound wife guess that he will panic? In pursuit of his duty, Macbeth has been fearless: "I dare do all that may become a man". Once he "dares do more", and breaks the bonds that link him to a humane order, he "is none". He is unmanned, willfully beside himself-- "To know my deed twere best not know myself", he says. Even as he attempts to go along with his wife's post-murder cover up, this Macbeth is already out of control and out of her ken. McCleary portrays Macbeth's reaction to his own dehumanization by flurries of numbness and trivialization on the conscious level-- little jokes and distancing observations of his own paranoid symptoms-- and stark horror on the unconscious. From the moment he can no longer trust himself, threat is everywhere. He whines, he giggles, he barks and strains at the leash. He is a fretful child or a mad dog: anything but The Man She Married, The Man She Needs.
Successfully making Packer's point about "dominance called freedom', McCleary reminded me of many modern instances, from petty office careerists I've had the misfortune to work with on up-- or down-- to Dick Nixon. But though tailored to fit modern instances, the play itself is not cut down to size: running three hours, this production also reveals "Macbeth"'s kinship to the great medieval Cycles, huge multilevel metadramas which assert via anachronism a moral/aesthetic order encompassing all worlds and all times in an eternal present where temptation wars with kindness. This revelation of kinship not so surprising, considering that Packer and her Shakespeare & Company combined with Cambridge's Revels to stage a modernized version of "The Mysteries" in the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama last year.
Packer's current "Macbeth" also has points of resemblance to her earlier Bare Bard version, which I saw in 1993. In that staging, Jonathan Epstein in the leading role brought to mind the description of Edmund Kean's Shakespeare-- watching him was like reading the text by flashes of lightning. I had the great good fortune when I was an undergraduate at Colorado University of playing Lady M opposite a fellow undergraduate who was already a brilliant Shakespearean actor-- Barry Kraft, who went on to a distinguished career at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Being in the audience of the intimate Stables theatre with Epstein's golden voiced Macbeth affected me in much the same way as being onstage with Kraft's-- I was shaken to depths of pity, and my hair stood on end. But even as in our college production, that Bare Bard staging had, in between the sublime moments, some awkward passages. Ours were caused by inexperience, Shakespeare & Company's mainly by the costumes. When Story Theatre type doubling and tripling of roles works, the actor's transformation into a different character right before your eyes, simply by adding a hat or a cape, is magical. It demonstrates that anyone is potentially Everyone, and deepens the audience commitment to the imaginary world of the play. When it doesn't work, when by some vagary of casting or costuming the role swapping of the ensemble strains even the most willing suspension of disbelief past the breaking point, the play as a single unfolding event is broken, no matter how wonderful and deep the best sections of it may be.
There is only one such awkwardness in the current "Macbeth', when McCleary takes on the role of MacDuff's young son. Even this outrageous doubling works on the intellectual level. McCleary's child is not believable within the conventions of realism that govern the fine acting of Jennie Israel l's Lady Macduff in this scene: his child does not efface his Macbeth. However, having both characters present within the single actor's presence does make it possible to imagine that young Macduff is in some sense the child Macbeth once was. This insight comes at the cost of the nearly intolerable pain and pity that the child's part stirs in any merely competent production, though; and for me at least it isn't worth it.
Otherwise, the small company of eight highly skilled actors who play all the roles switch characters and costumes at the speed of thought, without apparent effort. It is only in retrospect that I fully appreciate the shear physical difficulty of all those "exit up left as a lad, change hat, hair, skirt, jacket and shoes and enter center as a female aide decamp, exit and re-enter after a dozen lines with yet another complete change of costume, voice, and bearing" acting challenges that the cast sails through. Much of this clear sailing is probably due to practice, which does make perfect; but the rest must be credited to the successful design of the new Founders' Theatre, set up to facilitate such transformations, and to the brilliant production team: Simotes, Dibble, Lohbauer, Perlow, Capizano, Gailen, and Huang. Beginning with an opening presentation that sets the performance style-- in this case with the recorded snarl of helicopters, the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons, bombs bursting in air and fragments of patriotic speeches by twentieth century leaders in multiple languages-- the actors step forward and introduce themselves one by one, announcing the various roles that they will play: "... Johnny Lee Davenport : I cover Banquo, a secret service agent, a Spirit from the Other World, and the Doctor"... "Judith McSpadden: I cover Ross, Fleance, a secret service agent, a Spirit from the Other World, the Cream Faced Loon, and Young Siward...'. The company employs all the old Bare Bard tricks-- rapid, seamless shift from character to character; the use of female actors play to male characters, or to play roles such as messenger or staff officer which historically have been restricted to males but in contemporary society can be filled by women; the use of a kind of abstract literalization, where a relationship between characters which resembles the relationship between a master and his fawning attack dogs will be physicalized by doggy licking and masterly tummy scratching; the "Double, double" witches as a multicultural coven of lab coated scientists from the Outer Limits, a Rave revving up the end of the Apparition scene; soldiers in camouflage combat gear bypassing automatic weapons and challenging the enemy with swords; ad lib stand-up comedy from Michael Hammond 's misruling Porter of Hell Gate-- yet all these potentially problematic expressions flow smoothly in service to telling the story of "Macbeth" in a way that makes the maximum number of connections to what we know of the world-- our world, where Fox News has replaced folklore-- and of our own souls.
What we gain though this is a sense of the Macbeth phenomenon as everybody's problem. Three dimensional people who are supposed to regard Macbeth as their boss come vividly alive, as they try to figure out who Macbeth is and what he is up to, and whether he should be stopped whatever the cost, and how. I've never been quite so sympathetic with Malcolm and impressed by Macduff as I was in Henry David Clarke's testing scene with Jason Asprey. Where DO you draw the line between necessary expedience and evil? And how do you tell which side of that line your confederates are likely to walk? These are vital matters always, but seem particularly pressing now.
I only wish that I saw more signs that we as a nation are ready to "begin
to ask the brutal questions in a non-blameful way", as McCleary is quoted
as saying the Shakespeare & Company production was designed to help
actors and audience do. Talk about ambition: the company embarked
upon a multi million dollar expansion just as the economy took a dive into
recession, and it has taken up the "high calling" of sociopolitical analysis
at a time when the goverment is slashing support for the arts and many are
calling for the suppression of dissent in the name of patriotism.
Is there is an audience willing to be led, however brilliantly, in the uncomfortable
direction Packer and her colleagues are inspired to go? The current production
reveals an urgency that comes from speaking directly to a specific
audience, in a specific time and place-- as Shakespeare was when he told
a story about King James' own ancestors to a King James who believed that
he, like his ancestors, was granted the power of rule by Divine Right. Although
the author paints his sovereign's forebears as good guys, the story
itself is a cautionary tale that shows a crown won by treachery and
maintained by bribes and threats, spies and assasinations-- methods
attributed to James himself by his political enemies. Shakespeare
not only got away with it, he was put on the king's royal payroll. Whether
S&Co will be as successful in winning the patronage of the citizens
of our imperial democracy remains to be seen.