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Shakespeare’s Macbeth is normally considered a classic drama about the dangers of ambition. Inside though — at its heart, you might say — is a love story about a man and woman deeply devoted to each other.
Lady Macbeth wants what’s best for her husband and encourages him to seize the opportunity for advancement. Macbeth, in turn, adores her. When a messenger informs Macbeth that the queen is dead, Macbeth replies, “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word; / Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...”
Alexander Burns, in his first directing opportunity for the Arden Theatre, emphasizes Macbeth’s love and devotion in this moment: Macbeth rushes out and returns with his wife’s body cradled in his arms. Then he gently lays her on the ground as he delivers his eulogy.
Conventional productions portray a man who fears his wife and is controlled by her. But Burns’s conception is more of a partnership arrangement. As superbly played by Ian Merrill Peakes, Macbeth seems intelligent and thoughtful, more like a politician than a soldier. Thus, he is more relatable than your usual Macbeth. You feel sympathy for him as he begins to regret his assassination of King Duncan. He develops a nervous tic, his hands begin to tremble, and he starts to stammer. Then comes the powerful banquet scene, where Macbeth hallucinates the presence of the murdered Banquo (an appealing Ben Dibble) among the dinner guests, covered with blood.
The Arden’s production is a straightforward telling of the story with none of the contemporary gimmicks (such as a change of locale) to which Macbeth has lately been subjected. Here the scene is specifically Scotland, yet the costumes are vaguely contemporary, as if to remind us that tyranny exists today as well as in the 11th century. The telling benefits from exciting battle scenes with convincing swordplay. James Sugg produced thunderclaps that were properly full of sound and fury. A rhythmically musical witches’ scene sounded like rap and made me wonder how exciting a complete rap version of Macbeth might be. The butchering of Macduff’s wife and son is always shocking, but in this staging Macduff’s reaction, in the hands of Terence MacSweeny, is surpassingly poignant.
Lady Macbeth remains ambitious and manipulative, of course, but Judith Lightfoot Clarke’s characterization is less fiercely controlling than the norm. She seems a bit too calm and rational, which makes her mad scene and suicide less inevitable. Solid support is provided by Carl Clemons-Hopkins as an imposing Scottish nobleman and Aimé Donna Kelly as an unusually strong Lady Macduff.
Fittingly, the Weird Sisters, commonly known as the witches, are played by the accomplished actors E. Ashley Izard, Mary Tuomanen, and Kelly (all of whom play double roles). They, more so than Lady Macbeth, instigate the plot. Their prophecies impel Macbeth at the play’s start, and later they seal his doom with their warnings about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and harm emanating from “no man born of a woman.”
What, When, Where
Macbeth. By William Shakespeare; Alexander Burns directed. Through April 19, 2015 at F. Otto Haas Stage, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., Philadelphia. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.
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