A hardy crowd of Shakespeare fans braved last weekend’s heat to attend opening night of SF Shakespeare’s “Macbeth," and were well repaid by a rousing rendition of this bloody classic, “adapted” from Scottish history.
A gutsy visceral performance of the title character gave veteran actor Michael Wisely the chance to emerge from his annual “Christmas Carol” persona and show his nastier chops. Progressing from a loyal subject of the Scottish King to a traitorous murderer in an increasingly vicious downward spiral, he was the incarnation of a man who has lost his moral compass and become an unbalanced raging beast, striking blindly at all around him.
Beginning with King Duncan’s assassination, he literally disintegrated on stage into a fearful conscience-stricken victim of his own evil deeds, his mind making him suffer the tortures of the damned. Pitifully lamenting that he could not utter “amen” as he crept past the king’s praying grooms with his “hangman’s hands," he imagines a voice crying out that he would never sleep peacefully again, and confesses to his wife, “I am afraid to think what I have done.”
Uneasy in his usurped kingship, he must carry out still more murderous crimes against any who might threaten his reign or reveal his misdeeds, ordering the death of his close friend Banquo with the resigned comment, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” His resolution to appear calmly regal falters when he imagines Banquo’s bloody corpse sitting in his own seat at the royal banquet table. He raves about the horrible apparition that he alone can “see," drawing spectators into his frenzied hallucination, and chilling his hearers with his fearful outburst, “The time has been that when the brains were out, the man would die… but now they rise again… and push us from our stools.”
Recognizing the threat of this vengeful spirit, he moans, “They say blood will have blood… I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” (continue). And his murderous career does continue, until “supped full of horrors”, he is numb to all catastrophes, even including his wife’s death, acknowledged only with the dismissive, “She should have died hereafter, there would have been time for such a word.”
The culmination of his blasted life reaches its bitter climax with his famous speech, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” He ends with the despairing cry, “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow… It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Only “Hamlet” can compare in impact with the drama of this declaration, and Wisely makes the most of it.
Emily Jordan as Lady Macbeth was a powerhouse of ambitious passion, urging her irresolute husband to commit the treacherous regicide that will make them rulers of Scotland. Her invocation to the night and its “murdering ministers” asks them to fill her from crown to toe, topful of direst cruelty,” a terrifying renunciation of all the supposed feminine attributes of mercy and tenderness. Her specific prayer, “Unsex me here”, shocking in our own time, must have been hair-raising to Elizabethan audiences.
When Macbeth’s initial hesitation drives her to furious frustration, she hounds him with relentless taunts of cowardice and lack of manly resolve, assuring him “Screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail.” But after assuring her fearful spouse, “A little water clears us of this deed,” her own inner workings of guilt lead to hallucinatory nightmares, culminating in her famous sleepwalking scene, beginning, “Out, damned spot!...will these hands ne’er be clean? Here’s the smell of blood still… All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
Indeed, Director Ken Kelleher has created a VERY bloody “Macbeth”, with nearly everyone in the cast eventually full of huge bloodstains as they die, but remain onstage to enact other characters. Noble King Duncan (Michael Moerman) becomes the doctor unable to treat Lady Macbeth’s guilty madness, while murdered Lady MacDuff (Maryssa Wanlass) takes the role of the Queen’s personal maid. Stephen Muterspaugh, a strong Banquo continues to “haunt” the stage after his death in all his gory glory, uttering ghostly commentary on the action, and cackling at Macbeth’s every setback.
Veteran actors Jackson Davis as the sympathetic Ross and William Rogue as both the earthy porter (finally a Scottish accent) and a heartless villain, added believable human characterizations to their parts. Ryan Tasker, last year’s outstanding Henry V, aroused audience emotions as MacDuff, Thane of Fife, mourning his slaughtered family, but resolute in fighting the bloody tyrant responsible. In fact, his fatal sword fight with Macbeth was one of the most intense such combats in memory. Kudos to fight coordinator Andrea Weber.
Director Keller, who conceived of last year’s brilliant “Henry V," takes a new approach to this well-known play, using Expressionist Theater techniques of movement and stasis. By having the cast wear expressionless masks in the great banquet scene, he showed the anonymous enforced conformity of everyone subservient to the usurping Macbeth. Each fearful guest had to “mask” his true feelings in the evil monarch’s presence, mouthing hollow declarations of loyal allegiance while planning to escape and rebel.
In a strikingly modern passage, Macbeth reveals that, aware of the growing discontent, he has planted spies in each noble’s employ, telling his wife, ”There’s not one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d (paid)”. Shades of recent revelations about our own government’s eavesdropping on its citizens for possible threats. Who says Shakespeare is dated? The increasing despotism of a tyrant is as modern as news of today’s Middle East megalomaniacs.
Eerie music and lighting play effective tricks with audience nerves, as do the three “Wayward Sisters” (a new translation now in vogue), appearing like omniscient zombies at key moments of the plot. This reviewer must confess to missing their more traditional evil cackling and potion-brewing incantations, but their appearance was definitely in keeping with the director’s vision. The storming of Macbeth’s castle and the victory of Scotland’s rightful heir and his forces puts the seal of Virtue Triumphant on the dark and violent narrative, which clocks in at an amazing 100 minutes.
Even children in the audience sat quietly spell-bound by the play, a sure sign of a “palpable hit." With temperatures finally easing, more crowds should be able to enjoy upcoming performances at 7:30 PM on Saturdays and Sundays, July 6, 7, 13, and 14. Pre-performance picnics are encouraged, and early arrivals can attend a clever and enlightening “Witchipedia” Green Show on the lawn, “giving a brief orientation to the world of Macbeth” 30 minutes prior to curtain time.
The stage is set well behind Pleasanton’s Aquatic Center on Black Avenue, and LOW beach chairs or blankets are welcome for audience comfort. Light refreshments are sold only before the curtain, as there are no intermissions. This season celebrates SF Shakes’ 31st year in the financially perilous world of Theater, still entertaining audiences with great free performances, but requesting donations from appreciative attendees after the show. Please be generous and ensure the company’s continued dedication to public performance and to youth education through local Shakespeare workshops and touring productions. It is a noble enterprise, and well worth everyone’s investment in its future.