'What bloody man is that?'

'Macbeth' at the Arden

5 minute read
She reads his mind: Clarke and Peakes in the Arden's "Macbeth" (Photo by Mark Garvin)
She reads his mind: Clarke and Peakes in the Arden's "Macbeth" (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Ambition is the great trope of Elizabethan and Stuart theater, and its use and abuse undergirds all of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays. Nowhere is this more evident than in Macbeth, whose principals succumb to its allurements and pay its costs. The Scottish Play contains elements that are at once more primitive than anything else in Shakespeare — those witches on the heath make the ghost in Hamlet a decidedly avuncular figure — but others that are as timelessly contemporary as, say, the latest presidential derby.

Macbeth is looking for trouble on the heath, and it finds him. We may take it that the landscape is that of his own dark mind, and the witches the sirens of his own temptation. Of course, he does not take it that way; he thinks he has encountered the prophecy of his coming good fortune. But Shakespeare makes clear that our devils are within in the character of young Malcolm, the heir to the throne Macbeth has usurped, who warns the faithful Macduff that had he himself power he would “Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound / All unity on earth.” Malcolm doesn’t mean this, but he is not merely trying Macduff’s loyalty; he means to say that evil lives in every man, and each one of us is a potential tyrant who can be trusted only insofar as he understands this. It is what Macbeth does not understand about himself, and why he all too willingly listens to the witches, who tell him what he wants to hear.

Prophecy and superstition

Macbeth’s superstitious credulity leads him on, but it also partially checks him: if he is to be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, why must he act at all rather than simply wait on events? It is Lady Macbeth who truly reads his mind; she sees in him the ambition she shares and the desire for power she craves, but which he cannot fully admit to himself. The prophecy will come true only if Macbeth acts to bring it about, but Lady Macbeth must persuade him to do so by arguing that if the crown is to be his he will gain no advantage by waiting for it to fall into his hands, and only risk it by postponing good fortune. She plays on his sense of masculinity and even, in a sense, his male honor, for what man would passively wait for the possession he has been promised? Macbeth is finally persuaded that action will in fact prove his desert, and delay deny it.

There are few scenes in drama more difficult and subtle than the one in which Lady Macbeth prevails on her husband, and it is the hinge, obviously, on which the entire play turns. With all the violence and treachery it exhibits, Macbeth is at heart a domestic drama, and a commentary, like the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the play of their names, on the combustible compound of sexuality and power.

Spectacle over character

The Arden Theatre’s staging of this scene in its current production of Macbeth is carefully framed but does not delve as deeply as it might. This is partly because of a tendency, general in productions of Shakespeare of late (including the Hamlet now playing at the Wilma) to emphasize spectacle and special effects at the expense of character portrayal. It seems enough, for many directors, if their actors can move smartly, fight skillfully, and get Shakespearean diction out with reasonable speed and fluency. But this is only where Shakespeare begins.

The Arden’s production is certainly well designed, with a simple but highly effective thrust stage hedged by tall facades, and brilliant lighting by Solomon Weisbard. It begins with the clamor of a storm, the sound for which is rather overbearingly designed by James Sugg. You are meant to understand that a modern theater can produce effects as hair-raising as any wraparound film or rock concert experience. Well and good, but the effect is also to diminish the impact of the witches, whose seduction of Macbeth is critical to the play’s proceedings.

Too much dispatch

Ian Merrill Peakes’s Macbeth is sturdy enough, but despite his technical excellences he is rarely given time in Alexander Burns’s rapid-fire direction to develop the sense of a figure caught in his own toils. Steeled to action by his wife’s persuasion, Macbeth proves his tragic dimension by acting out a fate he comes to understand, too late, as a perdition that has been stripped of all value but which can no longer be avoided. He is as weary at his end as Hamlet, Othello, or Lear; unlike them, he is utterly without consolation. If an audience does not feel this, it has not felt the play.

The other and equally critical role is of course that of Lady Macbeth, whose descent into madness is also handled with a little too much dispatch. Judith Lightfoot Clarke has suitable hauteur in the role, if not quite the dominance it demands, and the subtler sense of someone overshooting her strength. Among the other players, Christopher Patrick Mullen adds an interesting dimension (and a few extra lines) to the role of Hell’s Porter, normally a throwaway diversion in the play — but, in Shakespeare, there are no throwaways.

The notes for the production indicate that “Before House of Cards and Game of Thrones there was Macbeth.” Yes, and I’ll wager it will be there long after those extraordinary contributions to Western culture are gone.

For an interview with Christopher Patrick Mullen about his expansion of the Porter’s role, click here.

What, When, Where

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Alexander Burns. Through April 19, 2015 at the Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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