Everyone knows that even bad Shakespeare is pretty good. But there’s no bad Shakespeare at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and their current production of Macbeth is the Bard at his best – lean and mean.
Macbeth is the shortest of the Bard’s tragedies. There’s some debate that scenes might have been lost from the original script, but this text was probably intentionally lean when it first came from the quill of William Shakespeare in the early 1600’s. There are no protracted existential soliloquies here – no “to be or not to be” nonsense. The few moments of introspection in Macbeth focus on homicide, not philosophy.
USF director Melissa Rain Anderson skillfully heightens the impact of the play’s brevity by driving its action at a breakneck speed, barely giving her cast members a moment to catch a breathe. All things considered, that rapid pace serves to make this production ideal for modern audiences, who are prone to suffer from attention deficits
Macbeth is also a mean tale in thought, word and deed. There is poetry in Shakespeare’s text as always, but the words are grim. This play is full of people who reek of flesh and – especially – blood. They are driven by real emotions – ambition, lust, fear, madness and hate – to lengths even they find inconceivable. What else would you expect? It’s the 10th Century in Scotland, when everyone had daggers and no one was afraid to use them.
Ms. Andrson’s cast members deliver marvelously nuanced performances across the board.
Equity actor Wayne T. Carr lends real humanity to Shakespeare’s title role, which could just as easily be played as a remorseless sociopath. Carr instead portrays Macbeth as an honorable soldier who is fatally seduced into unspeakable acts by the lure of irresistible temptation.
Carr co-stars with the statuesque Katie Cunningham, who embodies what is too often lacking in productions of this tragedy, a Lady Macbeth who could visibly tempt a husband to commit the ultimate crimes of treason and regicide.
There are few really likeable characters in Macbeth and almost all of those become victims before the final curtain, including Andrew May as the doomed King Duncan and Todd Denning as Macbeth’s inconvenient comrade-in-arms Banquo.
Other cast stand-outs are Michael Elich and Stephanie Lambourn as Macduff and Lady Macduff. The on-stage murder of Lady Macduff and her children is one of the play’s most disturbing scenes and provides ample motivation for Elich to become Macbeth’s relentless nemesis.
When it comes to the play’s infamous Weird sisters, Ms. Anderson bucks modern trends by choosing to emphasize their sinister nature rather than their sexuality. So their portrayals by Sarah Hollis, Emma Geer and Betsy Mugavero are thoroughly creepy. While I have to admit that I miss sexy witches, the director’s call probably keeps this Macbeth closer to Shakespeare’s original vision than most recent productions.
This production is admirably traditional in other ways as well. The time and place are as Shakespeare intended; those are aspects of Macbeth with which modern directors are too often tempted to tinker. The set design is suitably foreboding. The sound and special effects are amazing. The only minor criticism of the play’s artistic elements might be that the thematic uniformity of costume designs made minor characters difficult to recognize.
As you might have guessed, this is not a show for the kids. In addition to the play’s inherent violence, Ms. Anderson has injected a disturbing undertone of psychological menace to children throughout the production. If you want to expose the kiddies to Shakespeare, take them to Twelfth Night.
Repertory performances of Macbeth will continue at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Sept. 7th.