Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Macbeths

Last year The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater (PST) presented a production of Macbeth. This fall, Wilma Theater is doing their own version. Both productions were excellent in terms of acting and directing, but completely different. This is one of the things I love best about Shakespeare--unlike Beckett or Shaw, directors and actors can play with the Shakespearean text and provide radically different experiences for their audiences. So I thought I'd compare a few key moments in the two productions. One note: the night I attended the Wilma's production Ed Swidey played Macbeth. His performance was quite extraordinary, but since most people will not see him, I won't comment on or compare the Macbeths.

The Supernatural: PST had a much reduced cast overall, so instead of three witches they had one, Mary Tuomanen in a shapeless black robe, with a veil over her face and a rattling staff. In contrast the Wilma's production (which was all in modern dress) featured witches dressed as homeless women, in rags and bruised faces.

The PST used a light hand with the supernatural elements--Banquo's ghost was not on stage and the apparitions were represented by flashpaper bursts. Instead, the focus was on Macbeth's reactions, and Ron Heneghan was more than up to the task of creating the visions for the audience through his voice and body. The one special effect PST did use was one not called for in the play--the basin of water the Macbeths (and eventually others) used to wash their hands in had a second, hidden, bowl of stage blood, so that people could variously be seen as purified or corrupted.

Theater companies often go overboard with the special effects in Macbeth but the Wilma managed to be elaborate and innovative. Instead of Macbeth traveling to see the witches, they swarmed into the castle on the heel of the banquet scene, tossing dishes to the floor and turning the soup tureen into their cauldron. When Macbeth appeared, they dragged him to the upper level and the apparitions appeared below, each actor clad in black but with a blacklight mask so that they appeared to be floating heads. The effect, especially with the addition of multiple overlapping voices, was quite powerful.

Music: Here I have to give the nod to the PST--the use of live music and exotic instruments created an entire world for the audience and made the performance much more powerful and intimate since the actors provided the soundscape. The Wilma's music was generally effective, although the mass like song that greeted Duncan's entrance at the opening of 1.4 seemed excessive. At no point, however, was it as powerful as that produced by the PST.

The Macbeths' relationship: Here is a place where the two companies overlapped a great deal. In both productions the deep affection between husband and wife was obvious in the early scenes, and Lady Macbeth's devotion to her husband's career was clear. Both productions showed the first cracks in their relationship early on, even before Banquo's death, and both productions demonstrated the loss of love through physical separation of the actors at the end of the banquet scene.

Both productions received high praise from those I went with--in one case a number of colleagues who, while academics, were not English professors and in the other an Introduction to Shakespeare class. In both cases, everyone commented how much seeing the play added to the understanding and enjoyment of reading it. It's perhaps an obvious point (being made on a theater company's blog) but Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen and  heard, not read, and they really come alive best with a talented company of actors. Even films are second best to a live performance, so everyone should see as much live theater as possible (not that I'm biased).

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