Theater: Many faces of Macbeth

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

courtesy manuel harlan/lyceum theater
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.

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.

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.

But just because this Folger production played up the campy and supernatural elements of the play doesn't mean that Teller and company are ignoring the play's topical currency.

"I can't deny that certain things connect with me today that didn't when I first read 'Macbeth' as a teenager," Teller says. "Severed heads meant nothing to me 20 years ago; today you can see real ones on the Internet." Teller says Macbeth fits the definition of a terrorist ("he uses small localized violence to control the population"), and while the Folger production in Washington makes no reference to this, a Polish production coming to New York this summer does so rather overtly.

Director Grzegorz Jarzyna's "Mac­beth," which premièred three years ago in Warsaw, does not shy away from current politics. Susan Feldman, the artistic director of St. Ann's Warehouse, the theater producing Mr. Jarzyna's version, says this "Macbeth" – which Jarzyna translated into Po­lish – is updated and staged in modern dress.

"It's influenced by images of Al Qaeda," she adds, "and Grzegorz sort of sets it in a military-industrial country that's fighting a Middle East country."

Jarzyna's production – which will run June 17-19 at a tobacco warehouse in Brooklyn because no theater in New York City is big enough to house it – does not make direct analogies with the characters of the play but rather connects the themes of the play with feelings many people have today. "Ever since the Iraq war, there have been so many Macbeths," Ms. Feldman says, " 'Macbeth' is a war play – it's about power, the corruption of power, and leaders who are out of control."

Across the country, in the San Francisco Bay Area, another upcoming "Macbeth" is also taking aim at contemporary America – albeit on a more domestic front.

Mark Jackson's production – premiering later this year at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Calif. – will use "Macbeth" to comment on pop culture's blind and often violent ambition. Instead of a battlefield, his "Macbeth" will take place on a fashion runway.

"A great deal is made of Macbeth's clothes fitting or not fitting," says Mr. Jackson. "Also, 'Macbeth' was originally done on a thrust stage [catwalk] and performed in period dress … all these things gave me the idea of using a contemporary fashion-show setting."

Jackson insists that he won't set the play in an actual fashion show, but will use the iconography of that world to "comment on America's obsession with youth and how that corresponds with our cutthroat industries."

Purists, of course, might object to these updates and interpretations, but there seems to be an audience for Shakespeare's 400-year-old play, regardless of whether "Macbeth" is portrayed as an aging, 20th-century despot or a bratty, 21st-century hipster.

"Let's face it, ambition and blood are in the air, culturally and politically," says Jackson, "That's why I suppose 'Macbeth' is having its moment right now."

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