Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Macbeth in Plymouth: The Garden of the Mind



            Seeing Shakespeare on stage began for me back in graduate school at Boston University as a student studying the texts. One of my professors arranged for some film versions to be screened locally. Orson Welles played Falstaff in a version of the Henrys. Roman Polanski made a 'Macbeth' that was too Hollywood or just too weird. Then a theater in Boston began offering some Shakespeare plays: 'The Tempest.' 'As You Like It.' We saw a 'King Lear' at one of the college theaters. Even with a twenty-something in the role of the doomed king, who failed to become wise before he became old, seeing Lear live was a scary good experience.
            We began to make a regular thing of it. We discovered Shakespeare & Company, a then-new company performing in the woods outside the Edith Wharton estate in Lenox. We saw a Macbeth with a young actor in the lead whose New York accent got in the way of the play's Scots ambience. Still, the show had a grip on the audience, including our daughter who cried in the end when Macbeth dies. She was five, I think (what kind of parent brings a 5-year-old to a Shakespearean tragedy?) and though unable to follow all of the play's ins and outs (especially the notion that
Macbeth was responsible for most of the bloodshed) her reaction caught the paradox of tragedy. It's hard to not to identify, to go along some way, with a tragic hero.
            It's impossible not to care about Ross MacDonald's Macbeth in the Old Colony Shakespeare Company's ongoing production at the Spire in Plymouth. He's set up by fate. 'Oh, I am fortune's fool!' he might wail, as does Romeo in his play. And the set-up is more than the ominous, though tempting foretelling of the infamous 'three witches.'
            At the play's start, Macbeth is returning from battle, having put down a bloody rebellion against the king. Brave soldiers, military heroes, come back from the wars throughout the centuries, but do they come back to what they were before? Or does the trauma of violence 'start a spirit' (to use an Elizabethan phrase) inside them? -- especially in the days when being a war survivor meant coming back with blood on your sword.
            As MacDonald plays the part, Macbeth's loyal-soldier hinge comes loose right from the start. He is far too interested in the weird sisters' prophecies. When they say 'and king thou wilt be,' the words are dark music to his ears. Perhaps a crown would make poetic justice of the slaughter he's just committed on the king's enemies.
            And if a crazy, blood-born notion has been externalized by the witches' prophecy so that the war-hero must face it, the Macbeths' marital dynamic doubles down on the desperate gamble of usurping a throne by 'foul' means. Lady Macbeth is the dark lady of Shakespeare's tragic women. In fact the strength of Shakespeare's female characters throughout his opus may be one piece of his genius that's still under-appreciated. In play after play, it's the women who drive the action. In 'Romeo and Juliet' it's Juliet who says, 'well if you're really serious, show up tomorrow and we'll get married.' Female characters impel the action in all the 'romantic comedies' as well. In Macbeth, it's the hero's lady who says 'if you really want and need to be the top man in Scotland, let's not just sit around wishing.'
            But the play is Shakespeare's critique of vitalism. Macbeth has more energy, and certainly more poetry, than any of the other characters. But evil choices, as his sad tale shows, reduce even the best of men to the banality of the tyrant. Still, even as he degrades himself to gangster status, rubbing out the competition, Macbeth becomes the supreme poet of the banality of evil: " I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
            That's the tyrant's fate in a nutshell: killing people is tedious.
            Bay Colony director Neil McGarry has suggested that the husband-wife dynamic is also supercharged for a reason only glanced at in the text. "I have given suck," Lady Macbeth says at one point. Since the couple have no children now, the reasonable inference is they have lost a child, and the death of a child is a lingering trauma for parents. Lady M also pointedly raises the spectre of madness in warning her husband not to think about certain things too much.
            'Let's get life back on track,' she may be thinking when her husband raises the witchery of being king. 'If he wants to be king, well maybe that's the ticket. It stinks to have to carve up a nice old man in your guest room but, hey, life is tough.'
             It is tough. Lady M. falls prey to her own warning and doesn't make it to the end of the play.
            Watching a brainy and energy-packed interpretation of one the English language's masterpieces such as the show currently offered by Bay Colony Shakespeare Company is why we keep going to the theater. So many good things call out for notice. The cast's three witches (Poornima Kirby, Monica Giordano, Meredith Stypinski) offer glorious, wild, physical nasty-joy. Stypinski also finds more to do with the single speech of the darkly clownish 'porter' than one ever imagined was in there. Eric Simpson as Lady M was all-in, matching MacDonald's visionary loosing of the inner devils with a steely determination to fight a losing battle. And MacDonald's falling hero, summoning his own demons, anticipates the consequences even as he commits the acts that bring them on in a brilliant realization of one of literature's great creations.