Purists will hate this Macbeth. The theatrically skeptical will find it heady and ridiculous but, mostly, it’s the purists who will hate it. Director Sophie Ann Rooney takes huge, ambitious leaps of interpretation and some of her key cast members don’t have a clue how to speak the verse. They absolutely have a point, the purists, but I think it’s productions like this that are the reason Shakespeare’s plays have survived 400 years and are still so frequently produced that this is one of three Macbeths playing in Toronto in the last month. I’m not saying Sterling’s version of the play is a truly excellent Macbeth– it’s a little too overwrought, at times verging on silly with its choreographed witch dances and woo woo thematic intensity, then there’s that insurmountable verse issue- but it got me thinking about Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy with the non-critical, Shakespeare-loving, interpretation side of my brain I don’t get to use enough. And that’s just fun. So forgive me if this review is not review-y enough for you. Surely there’s someone else who can praise Jesse Nerenberg’s grasp of Shakespearean linguistic nuance (tellingly, Nerenberg’s presence is the only thing Sterling’s Macbeth has in common with Shakespeare Bash’d’s straightforward version mere weeks earlier) and take the costume designer to task for putting Scott McCulloch’s Star Trek villain-like Duncan in what appears to be a 1980s women’s power blazer. What I’m going to do is talk to you about the choices in this production like I’m back in University, skipping my Anthropology class in favour of sitting in Starbucks with my best friend Nic, complaining about our Villains on the Renaissance Stage prof and doing our absolute favourite thing- talking Shakespeare.
We have to start with the general concept because it is at once a fascinating contextual idea and something not unlike nonsense. Taking the term “a new world order” that’s often used to describe the ending of a Shakespearean tragedy and running with it, Rooney crowns her Duncan the king of Scotland AND the leader of the Illuminati (I’m not sure you totally get the AND thing unless you give the director’s note a good read but that’s neither here nor there). Apparently there’s a global conspiracy among the “elite” (whatever that means) to create a world-wide totalitarian regime by placing their people in positions of power within the current world order (this, according the director’s note, is real life and somehow relates to 20 minutes being edited out of a Kubrick film?). Politically, this makes sense to me within the context of the text if Duncan represents the old order and Macbeth or Malcolm the new one. As long as you’re able to justify the level of violence in act five, I will accept the story of Macbeth played within pretty much any community with a vaguely monarchical structure, the Illuminati included. I assume Duncan’s also the King of Scotland to give the invading-English-army business some context, but it wasn’t necessary to make him the leader of both; in fact, it might have been interesting if we got the sense that Scotland was just one piece of turf in a much larger battle and the powerful monarch the Illuminati placed there a comparative underling in a larger global organization. Doesn’t making Duncan the head of both a country and the organization that seeks to run it render the secret society’s mission somewhat redundant? And if Duncan is the head of the Illuminati, how does replacing him as king (of Scotland or of the Illuminati) bring about a “new world order” more in line with the organization’s platform? If Duncan were a normal king and one of his successors the Illuminati plant, that would make more sense. Or even the reverse, if the current king of Scotland were suspected of being controlled by a secret society and a rebel faction of thanes was looking to take him down (though that sounds more like a Nicholas Cage movie than a Shakespeare play). But here, as far as I can tell, the young, cool Illuminati members were trying to take down the old, uncool Illuminati leader (thus claiming the throne of Scotland on the side), I’m assuming because they didn’t like his blazer.
Because the Illuminati concept is politically redundant as told in this particular way, I’m assuming the hook was actually chosen less for the “new world order” business and more because of the lore surrounding the secret society and its connection to the occult. In her director’s note, Rooney says “With Macbeth I took the biggest theme: Black Magic and found the modern (or future) world that it lives in”. For starters, I’m not sure why we’re taking for granted that black magic is Macbeth‘s “biggest theme”. At intermission, I took a quick Facebook poll inquiring after the play’s biggest theme and received 15 responses ranging from “spot removal” to my favourite (from the aforementioned Nic) “that there’s a little evil (however you define evil) in all of us, therefore be prepared to face it one day”. Most of the answers came down to ambition and power (Macbeth‘s more generally accepted “biggest themes”) though some tread a little closer to Rooney’s choice with answers like “The unnatural act of killing those you should protect unleashes forces we cannot control”; one person even boiled it down to “never trust witches”, which hits this production pretty much on the head, but, for the most part, the serious responses focused on the human side of Macbeth, not the supernatural. It’s interesting, then, that Rooney believes black magic to be not “one of Macbeth‘s unique elements” or “a dangerous force that lurks temptingly in the back of a good man’s mind” but its “biggest theme”. This belief leads to a lot of the production’s most laughable elements- robes, chanting, that hilarious witch dance number- but also contributes some really cool moments that, because almost nobody actually thinks black magic is Macbeth‘s biggest theme, show famous scenes in a new light. The best example of this is in Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech which Olunike Adeliyi delivers as though summoning demonic possession, asking (apparently literally) for a curse to remove her womanly tenderness and allow her to commit evil acts without a conscience.
The bizarre thing about this interpretation being so openly focused on black magic is that Rooney also incorporates a brilliant idea I’d never thought of before that would actually allow for the story to be played in a completely realistic world with magic eliminated altogether. In this version, Ross, Lennox and Angus are the witches. They’re not just played by the same actors, they’re the same people, and baiting Macbeth into killing Duncan is their way of instigating change, bringing about the inevitable war that will eventually place their boy Malcolm on the throne (though why they’re so invested in Malcolm’s rule, or certain of Macbeth’s failure, is never made clear). I’m a little bit obsessed with this idea- recasting seemingly unimportant yet oddly omnipresent characters as gamemakers, weaponizing their roles as the perpetual observers to play on the psychology of their peers (Macbeth, Macduff, Lady M, even Malcolm) and use them as pawns. Add a sly glance here, a creeping guilty conscience there, and all of a sudden you’ve turned “why is Ross in this scene?” into “holy shit, how did I never notice Ross is in this scene?!”. Such a bold, interpretive choice also gives Danka Scepanovic, Jessica Kennedy and Suzannah Moore the opportunity to really play different characters as the witches rather than a conglomerate of vaguely eerie beings numbered rather than named.
Placing the Ross, Lennox, Angus interpretation within the black magic framework, however, makes them the play’s central symbols of the occult and spreads the production’s hyper-sexualization to almost every female character. One of the first things Rooney mentions in her director’s note while talking about the sort of thoughtful theatre she wants her sons to grow up to appreciate is that she wants things to be about more than “who looked pretty”. Yet she’s cast almost exclusively insanely hot women and almost all of them are stripped nearly naked at some point in the play. The first to strip is Lady M, revealing Adeliyi’s insanely ripped body. This, I didn’t have a problem with because it had an interesting character effect. Adeliyi could probably kill William MacDonald (who plays her husband) with her bare hands, something you don’t necessarily assume of most Lady Macbeths, and the removal of her clothing emphasizes that, her powerful bare legs wrapping around an eager Macbeth you now realize might be vulnerable in her company (not to mention the extra power it brings to the moments when she calls him weak, even if she means it less literally). But by the time the witches are dancing around in their underwear and groping each other, I’d had about enough. Ross, in particular, is played as a relentless vixen for what appears to be no reason other than Danka Scapanovic plays an excellent vixen. Her fresh and funny Porter, however, reveals depth and skill that’s being entirely wasted as she leans too hard on being sexy. The men, meanwhile, (even the sexy ones) are never called upon to be sexy. Maybe if Malcolm were a woman and Ross, Lennox and Angus were doing all this to topple a sexually repressive male regime (I would find that interpretation annoying, but at least it wouldn’t bait my latent feminist side like this does) but here they’re just working to replace an old man with a young man in a better suit. Surely they could do that with pants on.
Strictly on a character interpretation level, the most interesting choices revolve around Macduff. I actually have very little to say about MacDonald’s title performance except to point out that he looks like he could be a brother to Macduff (which is full of interesting possibilities though I think it might have been a coincidence). But, while Macbeth is played rough and intense as he so often is, Macduff is played by Tim Walker who has a stage presence so kind and sweet you’d think he would have moved away from this occult-filled, Illuminati-run Scottish hellhole years ago, and taken his lovely pregnant wife (Melissa Robertson) with him. Macduff is usually a hard-nosed super-soldier type, a real rule follower, but Walker’s Macduff roots his key sense of right and wrong not in the law but in a fundamental good guy-ness. He’s almost jolly, dressed like he’s on his way to his son’s peewee hockey game, and replies to Malcolm’s instruction to control his emotions “like a man” with a hint of disbelief in the always heartbreaking “I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man”. When Macbeth says “of all men else I have avoided thee” it’s not because the witches warned him to “beware Macduff” or, as it often is, because Macduff is an intimidating fighter, but rather (at least in my interpretation) because Walker’s Macduff is the sort of human being who makes you wish you were a better human being. It’s a character interpretation I never would have imagined someone making but it works, however improbably, and makes everything just a little bit more interesting for someone who’s seen far too many Macbeths.
The whole production strives to be that- interesting for someone who’s seen far too many Macbeths. As someone who’s seen far too many Macbeths, I’m grateful. There are a lot of execution problems here and a ton of big ideas that miss the mark or don’t work in cooperation or don’t go far enough (example: rain falls at presumably thematically chosen intervals, though I couldn’t discern the pattern, into a basin in the upstage left corner where characters are constantly washing their hands. Great idea! Constant hand washing is a fantastic little detail that tells you a lot about the community and hangs a lantern on Lady M’s meltdown. But why a big, opaque basin and periodic rain when the water could have been downstage in a small, transparent container so we could see it gradually redden, stained with the blood of the play’s victims until act five when there is too much blood for it to make anything clean anymore? A great idea that still was somehow a missed opportunity). But I’d always rather watch someone swing and miss than someone strikeout looking. Sterling Theatre Company’s Macbeth is an aggressive play that’s bloody, loud, daring and sexual beyond reason. It is, at times, a slog to sit through. But it got me thinking about Macbeth in a way that I haven’t gotten to sit around and just think about Macbeth for a very long time. I got to ask my incredibly smart friends what they thought the important themes were and speculate about blood imagery and the repurposing of female characters; I had a whole argument in my head about why Tim Walker shouldn’t play Macduff until I expanded my interpretation of the words as they actually appear, without comment, on the paper and realized that, just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean there’s no room for a Tim Walker version of Macduff. And what if the brotherly similarity was purposeful? They are aristocrats, after all, they’d likely be cousins of some sort. What if black magic really is Macbeth‘s biggest theme?…
… it’s definitely not, but I’ve really enjoyed ruling it out.
Catch Sterling Theatre’s Macbeth, if you dare, playing until December 20th. Click Here for tickets.