Macbeth; directed by Charles Fee for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Boise, Idaho, 19 June 2018.
Reviewed by Julie Fendrick
Macbeth’s witches perch upon the balcony of an impressive outdoor theater, their black, flexible wings wrapped around their bodies like bats; with a jarring crack of thunder, so opens the Macbeth of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 season. In a production designed to little distance itself from the core of Macbeth, director Charles Fee has returned to a fixed stage and nestled it in the outdoor amphitheater tucked away in a nature reserve, generating a symbiotic relationship between stage performance and nature. With this setting, along with the omnipresence of the supernatural, Fee has hit upon a temporal and spatial frame in which to explore the tormented mind of Macbeth.
The witches of Fee’s Macbeth, played by Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick, and Meredith Lark, are not those of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch and the early spectacle of the singing and dancing witches, nor are they the “fairies or nymphs” described by Simon Forman’s 1611 account. Instead, costume designer Kim Krumm Sorenson has devised their ragged appearance (dressed in black flowing robes, hair set in dreadlocks, and arms wrapped in dirtied rags) to be more like sinister hags. But, what sets the appearance of these witches apart from other productions is their bat-like arms. These “wings” are used to sometimes walk and to sometimes seemingly crawl across the stage and to envelope themselves and others—to hide and to reveal—an unnatural movement for the human form but a perfect portrayal of the hunters of the night.
According to director Charles Fee, the witches in this production “operate in their own supernatural realm,” their purpose to forecast but not to interfere. However, if this was the aim of Fee’s production, as he suggests, it doesn’t hold up here. The bat-like witches of this production go beyond prophesy and sidelined observation; rather, they interfere with the natural world on several occasions—but not to the detriment of the play; in fact, the effect is rather intriguing.
Fee involves the witches in Act 3, Scene 3 (the murder of Banquo) in an innovative way. The call of a raven opens the scene and introduces the presence of the witches. With arms raised vertically like tall gothic statues, each witch conceals one of Macbeth’s three murderers as they await Banquo and Fleance. Released from hiding and intent to perform Macbeth’s wishes, each of the murderers pursues his victim until Banquo’s murdered body lies center stage and Fleance has fled. In a spectacular turn, Fee’s witches, in ritual, circle Banquo, and with their great bat wings envelope the dead body raising his ghost and inviting the supernatural to enter into the natural world. When next the lights fade to black for intermission, this obvious trespassing of the witches lingers with an eerie otherworldliness.
Fee continues to conjure the witches’ interference in the second half. The witches take the last place at the banquet table and reveal, again by removing their bat wings, the ghost of Banquo sending Macbeth into a madness that forces his retreat to the apron stage where his heavy breathing overpowers the commotion of the concerned guests. The effect is especially disturbing when Macbeth, in an effort to stay the situation, says, “Come, love and health to all. / Then I’ll sit down.—Give me some wine. Fill full” (3.4.106-107), and the witches, instead of wine, hand to Macbeth the bloodied head of Banquo, sending Macbeth into a second fit. Macbeth throws the head of murdered Banquo, which ultimately rests for the remainder of the play on the balcony of the theater as a sinister reminder.
Whereas the stage apron permits out-of-the-way conversations (such as Macbeth’s secret exchange with the murders) and full fits, the main stage of this production contains a space for emphasis, a raised platform in the shape of an octagon. This platform (along with on-stage audience seating) is one of the few constructions made for the set of this production, and it functions well to highlight revealing moments. Lady Macbeth stands on this centerpiece to read Macbeth’s letter telling of the weird sisters’ prophecy. It is also here that, when Macbeth enters shorty after, the two drop to the floor in a passionate exchange, allowing their verse to command their physical position on top or bottom and demonstrating a back-and-forth switch of power. It becomes both banquet table and centerpiece for the witches’ cauldron. It is where Banquo’s murdered body lies and where the production closes with the crowning of Malcolm.
Lynn Robert Berg’s Macbeth is convincing as both warrior and usurper in turmoil, the battle taking place within this Macbeth obvious in both his vocal range and physical presence. Berg turns his back on the main action of the stage when Malcolm’s apparent ascension to the throne and King Duncan’s death are announced, and he dons and doffs his newly bestowed crown in a demonstration of his early uncertainty. In a most tormented state that follows King Duncan’s murder, Macbeth screams “O, full of scorpions is my mind” (3.2.41) with such anguish as to evoke something bordering sympathy from the audience. While Berg’s performance is dynamic enough to get some laughs at his “thou wast born of woman” (5.7.15-16) defeat of young Siward, he loses some of his momentum in the final act. Erin Partin’s Lady Macbeth never seems to falter. From her beginning role as spirited provocateur to her last tormented sleepwalking scene, this Lady Macbeth hits the mark at every turn. At “Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor” (1.5.62), Partin reaches down deep to deliver a passionate greeting that instantly imbues the scene with sexual tension. Lady Macbeth’s costuming makes overt changes from a dark velvet dress following the murder of Duncan to a white flowing nightdress for pacing around the stage in her infamous sleepwalking scene, yet Partin plays each moment with such nuance as to make believable Lady Macbeth’s smooth transition of emotions.
Jonathan Dyrud’s noble Banquo is brilliant as a foil to Berg’s Macbeth. In his suspicion of Macbeth’s dark descent, Dyrud becomes a careful and loving father showing subtlety in his increasing caution (made even more apparent when Banquo in hiding becomes the old man conversing with Ross about the unnatural night that follows Duncan’s murder). Aled Davies is convincing in his multiple roles: an amusing Porter, the third and unexpected murderer, Lady Macbeth’s doctor, and Seyton. While Christopher Tocco’s Macduff is passionate with every turn, he demonstrates little variation to distinguish between the anguish of being newly informed of his family’s murder and the rage that leads to his eventual revenge on Macbeth.
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater and Reserve (an outdoor theater tucked away alongside the Boise River with a backdrop of the foothills) is a natural space where it is easy to believe that both “heaven’s breath / Smells wooingly” (1.6.6-7) and “where sighs and groans and shrieks that rent the air / Are made, not marked” (4.3.193-194). The atmosphere created by both the natural environment and Rick Martin’s lighting design works to enhance the witches’ playground and Macbeth’s diseased mind, an effect that is brilliantly magnified as the sun begins to set. The witches’ cauldron is lit in a mysterious green while Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is subdued with hues of depressing blue. By far the most prominent color employed in this sense is red, a telling sign of the power and evil intent in this play of treachery and regicide. The first instance of this sign of danger is seen when Macbeth begins this famous speech that questions his ability to commit cold-blooded murder: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” (2.1.44-45). The dagger, like many productions of Macbeth, is merely an illusion, but the red lights that later gleam from his drawn dagger, add to the development of his lust for power.
Overall, this production’s boast of itself as a historical rather than contemporary adaptation is a success with just a few occasional modern flourishes that cannot help but transform this Macbeth, if only a little. Perhaps the most spellbinding aspect of this production is the omnipresence of the witches in all their unscheduled appearances throughout the play—including as the bearers of Birnam Forest to Dunsinane—combined with the sights and sounds of the natural reserve. In the end, the discovery that the witches, in their presence at the opening decrees of King Duncan and the final crowning of Malcolm—ominously bathed in red light—frame the play amplifies the interference of the supernatural in this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.