Michael Blake as Macduff (left) and Ian Lake as Macbeth in Macbeth. Photography by David Hou.
In the first few flashes of thunder and lightning, the beginning all starts with an ending. It’s not a surprising trick, as this bold restructuring inside Antoni Cimolino’s dynamic and dirty Macbeth from Stratford Festival is a play about seeing into the future through a twisted reflected lens. It wins us with an honest triffle, but in the end it betrays us in the deepest of consequences. Almost, as the production forcibly throws us into some unchartered territory, giving us a bloody beheading and flashes of originality, and then pulls us back to the supernatural beginnings with a flash of sound and fury marred in a forceful conventional reading. It’s a twisted sorted entrance into the epic solid Scottish play. But for all its earthy dark danger boiling within, Cimolino’s traditional approach to the emotionality pushes the very game cast into a single toned breathless anger that stalls this flattened Macbeth, offerings a lot, while not giving us very much grey to play with. With a frighteningly disturbing backdrop, the three weird sisters do their damnedest, weaving a web to ensnare the power hungry within their supernatural devices, giving us some of the best voodoo incantations this production has to offer, leading all of us down into hell with their double-edged prophecies.
Filmed dramatically by Shelagh O’Brien, the tale of Macbeth as delivered by Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director drives with a muscular force towards tragedy, pummeling us hard with big hot emotions. The thrust, dynamically designed by Julie Fox, is angular and intense, framed with twisted trees and solid rocks, giving the stage an organic mystical function the breathes as if the witches have brought it to life. The evil lives forcefully in the pools of light, constructed solidly by designer Michael Walton, laying out the cursed realms where the dark action of these easily manipulated men play out. Torches throw shadows across the floor, masking deceptive actions and playing with our field of vision. It’s a visably powerful terrain, one that feels ruled by the supernatural moon and stars. With dark manipulative magic playing on the hearts and desires of the soldiers, they listen to the whispers, but fail to see what lies ahead for them in the darkness.
A soldier hangs demonically by the wrists in the witches’ lair. His blood drained for the sister’s first spell. The framework sets these creatures firmly in power, playing mischief with the soldiers’ minds, and using them as easily-lead players in their plan. They see Macbeth, played with force by the buff and sexy Ian Lake (Ed Mirvish Theatre’s Once), as a pawn in their universal game of power and control. His ambitions are easily stoked and the seeds of his paranoia are easily planted inside his soul by the three. Lake creates a Macbeth that is young and full of immature fire, impulsive and impatient, but struggles to see the bigger picture within his dark desires. His youth and vitality of body work for the part, giving his a muscularity that feels unstoppable, while also shading the persona with unripe blindness. He looks towards his King Duncan, played regally by an impressive Joseph Ziegler, with a pleading son-like longing for validation and praise. His insecure need is painted in bloody bold strokes across his face, especially while glancing with jealous eyes toward the King’s favored son, Prince Malcolm, portrayed well by Antoine Yared, when Duncan’s attention turns away from the young warrior. Hot with obstenant and arrogant desire, Macbeth seeks validation from all those around him. He’s not heroic, outside of the battle, as his murderous impulses rail up from a place of frustration and insecurity, and he bares his canine teeth, angrily spewing forth his rage, when stymied from the attention he requires.
“It was the owl that shrieked“, rattling the mental cages of all that are laced with guilt. It is there, in that angry place, where the rest of the play steadfastly remains. It feels as if most of the leads are told to remain breathless and aggressively shrieking from a place of pain, pointed and intense at every stage of the game. It was an odd thing that my mind wandered to an interview with Meryl Streep, who when talking about playing Miranda in “The Devil Wears Prada“, discussed the power of the whisper, making people lean in with edgy nervousness, feeling something akin to fear and discomfort. I wanted Lake’s Macbeth and those around him to find a greater range within that tension, making us nervous and unsettled inside the brittle variations, but as is, they all remains almost entirely in a warrior’s posture, ready to thrust a sword at an unseen enemy. There was one moment, during the ghostly dinner scene when I thought he was finding some other tones to deliver, but like the soldier he is, Macbeth only remains there for a moment. As Cimolino plays with the dual apparitions around and on the table with a gloriously unique intent, it is hard to imagine that anyone at that dinner will ever be able to see him as a powerfully trust-worthy King, let alone a leader.
The same could be said about Krystin Pellerin as the young and intent Lady Macbeth, who starts off with a clear sense of purpose, finding sexual power in her “Unsex me here.” She twists out the evil speech to the dark spirits swirling around the stage with eager aggression, before her handsome stud of a husband returns,. They passionately kiss and she strips him down to wash the battle’s grim off his chiseled torso. It’s a powerfully erotic image, making me think back to a directorial plea in “Slings and Arrows” in regards to the same scene [Season 2 of that impressive series – which many say is modeled on Stratford is centered around Macbeth – a must-see]. But like her husband, she has difficulty finding the subtle shifts of emotional tone in her intense desire for power. She looks like an angel, especially when greeting the doomed Duncan with a kiss, masking her evil scheme expertly. She finds magnificent intent in her sleep walking scene, but unfortunately, her work is surrounded by stereotypical responses from the company that fail to elevate the horror of a woman who has gone mad before our very eyes.
The wildly inventive ending of the first act conjures up some of the most spectacular imagery found within the foulness of the witches’ black magic. It was difficult in the filmed version to fully make out the antics, but the chills that boiled up linger, thanks to the impressive work of Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Lanise Antoine Shelley as the powerful trio looking positively terrifying in Fox’s ragged costumes. The dynamic prophesies that emerge from the boiling pot radiate trouble and fear from within perfectly, even as Lake once again gets stripped to the waist. I’m not complaining, as he is wonderful to look at, as it is as if we are watching the whole dark destiny play out in the white (contacted) eyes of the blind witch, hazy and distorted at the edges. The fearsome three leave us desperate for more, drawing us back quickly to our seats and into the entanglements once the intermission comes to a quick end.
As the twisted darkness flows across the stage and the country, Macduff, played intensely by Michael Blake (Mirvish/Disney’s The Lion King), finds his inner fury when he is told of the brutal death of his Lady and his children, played wonderfully by Sarah Afful and the young Oliver Neudorf. It comes out pure and forceful, but somehow never becomes organic. The traditionalism in the reading of the text fails to connect as emotionally as some of the more unique visuals given. His final battle lacks the emotional intensity that one hopes for, staying stiff and cold compared to the frightened but aggressive Macbeth. And as he chases the confused and scared Macbeth off stage to bring his tormented rise to an end, we feel cheated from the gruesome end we all secretly are waiting for.
I was looking to the comedic Porter speech for some levity, especially after all the hard-wired constant intensity being forced out around the devious plot, but the novelty of the moment stalls as Cyrus Lane gives a far too modern edge to the drunken hungover clown. It disconnects from the ride, but the thrill of Macbeth still finds its magical spell to spin over us. As one of my favorite Shakespearian tragedies, the strong athletic assault builds almost too quickly and remains pretty much on the same level until the bitter dynamic end. I wanted variations in the emotionally hot-headed theme, that could echo the brilliantly staged sword fights that build and stab with strong intent, drawing blood before moving on to the next encounter fresh and forceful. The witches conjure up their spectacular force, never disappointing in their manipulated meddling, betraying the young warrior with his own greedy ambition and need for the external validation of his powerfulness. And even though its clear what his downfall will be, as the forest will advance upon him almost magically sealing his doom, I just wish the production gave us a more varied vantage point to watch the breathless war-within play out on that violent dark magic terrain.
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