Macbeth @ Perchance Theatre, Newfoundland, 2015Tragedy

  • Rob Ormsby

Macbeth by Perchance Theatre, Newfoundland. 2015.

Reviewed by Rob Ormsby

Perchance Theatre and predecessor New World Theatre Project have often tried to suggest in their work links between Shakespeare’s early modern world and contemporary and historical Newfoundland and Labrador, all the while embracing a relaxed outdoor festival style of production. Performers have occasionally adopted pronounced Newfoundland accents and have seemed most comfortable shifting in and out of the plays’ fictitious worlds, enjoying some of the company’s strongest effects when playing with and to the audience.
The current run of Macbeth rather changes the mix: no one appears to be making overt connections to Newfoundland; the actors aim at deeply serious psychological realism throughout; and the relatively infrequent direct addresses are not playful but means of amplifying the pathos. Unlike the modern-dress Much Ado running as Perchance’s easygoing companion piece to this tragedy, Macbeth is set in a version of the Scottish past. Director Danielle Irvine (also the company’s artistic director) has the men decked out in dark trousers, some fur, and great plaids wrapped around them and over their shoulders; the women wear long dresses, some edged in fur.
Yet, while the costumes are suggestive and functional, they are not vital to the production. Much more significant is the tight grasp Irvine evidently has on her show. The attention to detail in the line readings and blocking reflects the kind of professionalism not often found in small-company outdoor Shakespeare. What spectators witness is highly wrought material, very carefully planned and executed. Although Irvine’s hand is evident in the action, this is not director’s or typically conceptual theatre (add in scare quotes where you will); she squeezes a lot out her actors by letting them do the work within what appear to be fairly tight bounds.
It is perhaps by design, then, that the action is focused into a conflict between the Macbeths and the Macduffs. To be sure, there are strong individual performances from Dylan Brenton as Malcolm, George Robertson as Duncan (and as Seyton, in one of the production’s glaringly meaningful bits of doubling), and especially Greg House, whose ghost of Banquo fleers at Paul Wilson’s Macbeth. Meanwhile, Allison Moira Kelly, Alexis Koetting, and Erin Mackey’s Witches, concealed beneath head-to-toe black rags, take great care to speak their lines flawlessly and deliver an appropriately supernatural aura (aided by lighting and other effects never before used inside and outside the theatre).
Neither of the Macbeths presents many surprises. Janet Edmonds ably meets wide-spread expectations for Lady Macbeth: she is an excellent goad, knowing her husband’s tender spots; she remains ruthless when the would-be king loses his nerve at the sight of Duncan’s blood (though the blood briefly gets to her, too) and when Banquo’s spirit appears; and her decline into madness is finely compelling. Wilson, too, does what’s expected of actors playing Macbeth in the vein Irvine has selected, showing Glamis a valiant thane, Cawdor in need of his wife’s goading and deeply remorseful after slaughtering his king, and the tyrant wary of enemies and bloodthirsty in his resolve. Like the rest of the cast, Wilson has been well-drilled in delivering his lines according to the director’s specifications, and he makes a powerful impression on the audience.
The Macduffs in this production are a very different couple, pointing up the Macbeths’ childlessness with the deep love they show one another and their children. Koetting’s visibly pregnant Lady Macduff stands out as a benevolent maternal influence in the crowded scenes of extra-textual stage business that include her children, played by Alexander Wilson and Annabelle Sheehan. Koetting brings her charisma to the fore in the scene with her children after Macduff has fled Scotland; here, the welcome and mildly comedic respite from the violence (or the determined seriousness of the action) comes to a nasty end as the murderers spitefully destroy the happy family gathering.
Steve O’Connell stands out even more than does Koetting, seizing the opportunities Irvine gives him to show his Macduff to be a warm-hearted family man. In sharp contrast to the scheming serpent-beneath-the-flower Macbeths, O’Connell’s Macduff innocently teases and chases his children around the castle. Consequently, there is a real emotional pay-off when he learns of his family’s murder, and this heightened sense of Macduff’s personal motivation overwhelms Malcom’s final address to his army. Thus, despite the fact that O’Connell leads the other thanes in hailing Malcolm as Scotland’s new king, the emphasis on individual psychology cultivated throughout the production supersedes any generic political speech-making.
The opening-night crowd’s enthusiasm for the production’s emotional through-line showed that the director had hit her mark. More interesting, though, is that, like her polished Henry V from last season, this Macbeth demonstrates Irvine’s ambitions to bring the high seriousness and certain exacting standards of mainstream indoor theatre outside. Intentionally or not, Irvine seems to be edging (and it is just edging) Perchance in a different direction, adding a new dimension to the company’s character.
Macbeth runs in rep with Much Ado About Nothing until the end of August. For more information, see:

Author: Rob Ormsby

Robert Ormsby is as Assistant Professor in the department of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. His main areas of research is Shakespeare in Performance, and he has published articles in Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Bulletin, Cahiers Élisabéthains, Modern Drama, and Canadian Theatre Review. His monograph on Coriolanus is forthcoming in 2014 in Manchester University Press’ Shakespeare in Performance Series.