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Something Happened, Twice

The differences between the preview performance and opening night of The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Macbeth were pointed.

At least part of that comes down to a difference in seats. Wednesday night my son and I were sat seven rows back, center stage left. When we first found our seats I was admittedly worried about the experience, but those fears were soon allayed: the cast was marvelous in acting to three sides, and we were never left guessing or disengaged. If anything, the production was even more engaging than a traditional experience: sitting on the side as we were, it felt almost as if we were on an extension of the stage, and when actors turned to speak to us we were immediately part of the production. We could not see all of the stage work, true, but we saw the action, and had the freedom to focus on material details, such as props and costumes (hence my IG comment complaining that Lennox's boots are clean when the other actors' boots were all appropriately dirty.

On Friday night, opening night, Dr. S and I sat center stage, and much further back, giving the production a much more distanced and traditional feel. Then, I found myself focused more directly on the action of the play, and the ensemble performances.

First, my praise. Indira Varma is the best Lady Macbeth I've ever seen. Varma plays the role with frustration and dissatisfaction, furious at the role to which she's restricted for the sake of her gender. She's manipulative and charming, and I believed she could lead armies. Conversely, Ralph Fiennes' Macbeth is a strikingly pathetic character (much to Fiennes' credit, I say). He is quieter than his spouse, and more comfortably being led than leading. He looks to others for ideas and direction and assurances, which is ultimately what leads to his downfall. Though the story names him a great warrior he functions best under direction with clear outcomes and goals; when ultimate power is his he becomes manic and unhinged, uncertain what to do or how to behave or how to lead. I've never loved the character more, and thought it was brilliantly done.

Another brilliant performance was that of Macduff, played by Ben Turner. Though he seemed to be finding his footing on Wednesday, his Friday performance was strong, and he played heartstrings as he grieved and then sought vengeance.

Even though he did so with a rather absurd Scottish accent.

But that's not entirely fair, I've just discovered. Immediately following the play, and in the first draft of this review, I was critical of the limited use of Scottish accents by three actors - Keith Fleming as Duncan, Ben Turner as Macduff, and Ewan Black as Malcolm. I thought it was poor direction to have these three use strong accents when the principal actors did not. But, to do my due diligence, I quickly searched and discovered that ... Black and Fleming are Scottish* (

Aberdeenshire and Leith/Edinburgh respectively), so I'm the problem there.

Second, my criticism - valid criticism, I argue, despite my ignorance above.

Emily Burns, who adapted the play, and director Simon Godwin did the witches dirty.

The witches of Macbeth are iconic. They are what differentiates the tragedy from so many other Shakespearean histories and tragedies. They have helped define the stock character of the witch in European/American culture. They represent fears and wishes and power and communities outside of patriarchal communities ...

... and Burns and Godwin nearly silenced them. In the current production, the witches are nearly-useless appendages, hailing Macbeth and Banquo and then moodily decorating the spartan set. Their inclusion says nothing, and their exclusion changes the story. Given the gender discourses throughout the play, it's a damning choice.

I can ignore the lazy lighting design, boring sound design, and useless candles in the face of the wonderful acting of Feinnes, Varma, and Turner, but the production is worse off for cutting out its magic.

*Ben Turner was born in Hackney, London, and sounded the most "Braveheart" of the three, but it's pretty clear that my impression of accents is completely without value.

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