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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Full of Sound, but Little Fury in Gala Opening of Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Geraint Wyn Davies, Colm Feore, Dion Johnstone, Yanna McIntosh, Timothy D. Stickney

The story: Goaded by the predictions of three Weird Sisters and his ambitious wife, the soldier-lord Macbeth embarks on a murderous journey to gain – and attempt to keep - the crown of Scotland.

Given that the characters in Macbeth mention their country’s name is Scotland several times, not to mention that the play is superstitiously known as the “Scottish play,” one must wonder at the logic behind setting a production of Macbeth in “mythic mid-20th-century Africa”, as it is described in the house program’s notes.

The military campaigning of ancient Scotland still translates to today’s world of course, and there are still tyrants running countries as Macbeth becomes a tyrant in Shakespeare’s play – one particular African tyrant comes readily to mind. But these connections are not clearly made, and dressing some actors in African robes and underscoring a few moments with African drum-beats does not a good Scottish play make.

Why make the three witches into colourless, mundane Weird Sisters, when deliberately setting it in a continent where superstition is still prevalent and shamanism is still practiced?

Why is the set so starkly plain and black when it is supposed to be somewhere in a continent that has such a wide variety of climates, cultures and backdrops from which to choose?

Why not draw the parallel between the future leaders of Shakespeare’s Scotland and today’s tyrants? It would only take a small step to go from King Malcolm of Scotland and Rhodesia of the 1960’s to a future King Fleance of Scotland and future Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Director Des McAnuff had ample opportunity to create layers of depth and texture in this production, but perhaps for a lack of commitment and imagination he squandered them on pyrotechnics. (His production notes from his 1983 production, as can be viewed in the Stratford Festival edition of the play, are remarkably similar to those of 2009.)

Several actors can be honestly applauded for their attempt to lift this Macbeth out of this no-man’s land. As King Duncan, Geraint Wyn Davies is very warm and amiable; his presence is missed after Duncan’s death. Timothy D. Stickney’s Banquo is completely believable both as a soldier and political rival of Macbeth – the way he carefully watches Macbeth at all times is both menacing and illuminating. Dion Johnstone is a wonderful Macduff, and his grief over the murder of his entire family is touching, heartfelt and extremely hard to witness. Tom Rooney is pitch-perfect as the drunk and disorderly porter, giving the audience some much needed (and deserved) comic relief as he devilishly welcomes various audience members into the hell that is Glamis Castle; and Gareth Potter creates a conflicted Malcolm, one who is innocent, fearful and strangely hopeful.

Perhaps the best of them is Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth. Ambitious and manipulative, she shows a Lady Macbeth who can control her husband in a variety of ways, but is at a loss when his ambition outstrips her own. Her pivotal sleepwalking scene is creepy, far more than the Weird Sisters are at any point in the production. Ms. McIntosh reveals subtleties of Lady Macbeth’s character without being obtuse, and it is through no fault of hers that the passion that is supposed to be present between Lady and Lord Macbeth is more fizzle than sizzle.

Colm Feore portrays his Macbeth as an attention seeker, living fatalistically in the moment, solving his problems as they come instead of preparing for the consequences. This sounds more exciting than it appears on stage, although Mr. Feore’s customary brilliance shines through in clearly defined moments, such as the deadpan delivery of a particularly nasty double-entendre, his holding Lady Macbeth’s eye during the description of Duncan’s death, and a truly mesmerizing banquet scene. Aside from these moments when he seems electric, one gets the feeling that Mr. Feore is thinking the same thing as the audience: “I’m not buying this.”

In this case, his director has let him down. Des McAnuff should take a lesson from Barbara Gaines at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, who recently staged her own version of a modern militaristic Macbeth: If you are going to go out on a limb with a concept, you had better have the guts to see it all the way through.

Wait for cheap tickets for this one. Macbeth continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 31.


  1. I agree with this assessment. Maybe it is just my interpretation of Macbeth but it has always seemed very intimate to me. Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows who is in favor and who is not. The play to me is usually about what happens in a small closed society when one person decides to change his role.

    On the acting itself, this was the most mechanical performance I have ever seen Colm Feore give. He knows the piece cold but at times it seemed like he was just getting through the thing.

    It was great to see Ms. Mcintosh get lead role. I saw her in Romeo and Juilet last year and she stole every scene she was in.

  2. Yanna McIntosh is indeed having a good season in her roles as Titania, Calpurnia and Lady M! However, she was not in last season's Romeo and Juliet. You may be thinking of Sophia Walker, who played Lady Capulet last season, and is Lady Macduff this season. ~RG


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