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Theater: Many faces of Macbeth

Shakespeare's 'Scottish Play' meets an array of modern interpretations.

By James C. TaylorContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2008

Now in new york: Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart play a scene from Rupert Goold's acclaimed 'Macbeth,' one of a number of recent productions of the work.

courtesy manuel harlan/lyceum theater

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Despite its timelessness, Shakespeare's "Macbeth" has proven difficult to precisely date. Scholars disagree, but it's presumed that the play was written between 1603 and 1606. This year, however, a slew of innovative new stagings of "the Scottish Play," each with wildly different visions of the piece – one turns the famous witches into male monsters, one depicts them as ghostly nurses, another does away with them altogether – are proving that "Macbeth" is easier to update.

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The most acclaimed and talked-about "Macbeth" of the past year has been Rupert Goold's version, starring Patrick Stewart. This production started at the Chichester Festival in England last summer and has played to sold-out crowds in London and New York. (It just opened on Broadway, where it runs through May 24.)

Mr. Goold, who previously plopped Shakespeare's "The Tem­pest" into the North Atlantic around the time of the Titanic, updates the action of "Macbeth" to the 20th century and sets it in a Scotland that appears to have fallen behind the Iron Curtain.

The young director portrays Macbeth's murderous rise and rule as Stalinesque – complete with Soviet-era uniforms. Goold says that he started out thinking about politics in the era in which the play was written. The gunpowder plot of 1605 and Robert Cecil (Elizabeth I's spymaster) led him to John Le Carré and the succession of power at the Kremlin in the 1980s.

One line in the text held his in­terest throughout: "It was a line spoken by Donalbain: 'There's daggers in men's smiles,' " Goold says. "What he's talking about is doublespeak – which has always been the

product of tyranny."

In Washington this spring, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre presented a production of "Macbeth" codirected by Aaron Posner and Teller (of the magician duo Penn and Teller). Their staging also updates the Bard's text to make a point – albeit not an explicit political one.

Mr. Posner and Teller tell the tale of Macbeth in a straightforward showman's manner, as if the audience hadn't bought a ticket for Elizabethan drama, but rather for an amusement park haunted house.

"Shakespeare wrote a thrill ride, we didn't add that," says Teller in a phone interview from Las Vegas. Rather than focus on connections with contemporary times, Teller and Posner edited the script to play up the swiftness of the action and sharpen the character of McDuff.

Teller, who devised stage magic to heighten the super­natural elements of the play, had long wanted to stage "Macbeth," in part because he saw too many productions that were weighed down with kilts, bad accents, and gloom.

"The play as written is joyful and full of humor," says Teller, who compares it to Hitchcock's "Psy­cho": "All the way through, both contain horrifying giggles." Teller adds that the conventions of horror films helped shape this production: "the phrase 'Supernatural Horror Thriller' became our aesthetic lighthouse," he says. Shakespeare's witches became a trio of Freddy Krueger- or Jason-like monsters. Buckets of fake blood gushed on stage.

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