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Macbeth

[Updated, with further annotations, on July 31, 2008.]

Shake-speare's Macbeth is considered one of the darkest plays ever written, not just because of the warrior's and his wife's ambitions—lots of people are ambitious—but because of the way their ambitions unfold: in an ever-accelerating frenzy of blood-lust, paranoia, and black magic.1

Philip Charles Sneed as Macbeth and Karen Slack as Lady Macbeth
Philip Charles Sneed as Macbeth
and Karen Slack as Lady Macbeth
Photo: Kira Horvath, CU Communications
To this lethal recipe, director Lynne Collins' production—which kicks off the 50th anniversary season of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival—adds hubris. Like high-concept opera, the stage is dominated by a monolithic idea, a crumbled colossus that, we are told in the program, harkens to Shelley's famous "Ozymandias," the boastful tyrant whose monuments to himself have long since disappeared beneath the sands of time.

But while there are arguably a couple of references in the script that tangentially reveal some notion of pride, Macbeth is no Ozymandias, and to make him so prevents this production from taking full advantage of the subtleties woven throughout the masterwork.

CSF Artistic Director Philip Charles Sneed, in the title role, has all the makings of a great Macbeth. His resonant voice, impeccable scansion, and physical presence convincingly underscore the recounting of battlefield exploits that precede his entrance. Yet held in the thrall of pride (the production's "big concept"), the inner dialogue that should play like well-tempered counterpoint in an ambitious man with increasing self-doubts, here flattens Macbeth's dynamic range and diminishes his tragic stature, leaving us to wonder what Sneed could have done with a Macbeth more cognizant of his mistakes.

Essentially, the infusion of hubris into Macbeth’s character adds a layer to Sneed’s performance that seems to make Macbeth less aware of what the text says he knows all along. Instead, like Ozymamdias, he’s too full of himself to realize what’s happening. This diminishes his tragedy, makes him less great, less fallen. Ozymandius likely never knew that his grandeur would be forgotten; Macbeth should be fully aware that his lineage ends with him.

Karen Slack, only a few months out from a stunning study of post-partum madness and inconsolable grief in the impressive "Cowboy Macbeth," explores similar themes here, but to diminished effect; forced to sacrifice the nuances of character to an idea unsupported by the script, her histrionics come across less about loss and despair and more about failure.

(Left to right) Jamie Ann Romero as First Witch, Alexandra C. Lewis as Third Witch, and Karyn Casl as Second Witch
(L to R) Jamie Ann Romero as First Witch,
Alexandra C. Lewis as Third Witch,
and Karyn Casl as Second Witch
Photo: Kira Horvath, CU Communications
Collins' use of the witches (sans Hecate) as figments of Macbeth's imagination and dreams subverts the playwright's discussion of free will and fate, reducing the tragic hero's temptation to a psychological dysfunction, rather than a classic moral battle. In the original script, Hecate tells the witches that they shouldn’t have told Macbeth about his fate. This theme is echoed in one of Macbeth’s famous monologues:

... But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,      We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. ...

The natural order (the fabric of space-time) has been violated2 and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must pay the price. In Macbeth’s case, this speech, made before the bloody deeds, shows that he is aware of the consequences of what he is contemplating. After the deeds, there are (according to the script) times when he is acting out of pure instinct, murdering to protect his back, and times when he is circumspect about the punishment he is sure to receive. So, in this adaptation, Macbeth's awareness of his own tragedy is doubly reduced, first by hubris and second by the absence of Hecate's explanation.

Yet, regardless of this production's misperception of the Macbeths' motivations—ambition transposed to delusions of grandeur—the suffering of the Scots under the couple's short-lived reign is great, and the depiction of such throughout this production—Stephen Weitz' thoughtful Banquo and Geoffrey Kent's passionate Macduff, along with strong performances from the ensemble—returns some gravity to the production.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Macbeth runs in repertory with Love's Labour's Lost, Henry the Eighth, The Three Musketeers, and Woody Guthrie's American Song through August 16th on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. 303-492-0554 or at www.coloradoshakes.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes

1 The playwright, Edward de Vere, a courtier with a firm belief in the protocols of the aristocracy, was badly shaken by his experience with the Star Chamber proceedings that resulted in the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. He considered the execution of a monarch against the laws of the natural order, which is clearly reflected in the supernatural goings-on of the play. As Hecate, Queen of the Witches, notes:

WITCH
Why, how now, Hecate! you look angerly.

HECATE
Have I not reason, beldams as you are
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death ...

2 A number of supernatural events in Shake-speare's Macbeth are unique to de Vere's version, including Lady Macbeth as depressed and controlling, Macbeth as a fatalist and brooding and hesitant murder, his paralysis at the sight of a forest marching forward, and other details—all derived from a one-of-a-kind manuscript about the kings of Scotland to which the author was provided access by Margaret, countess of Lennox (mother to Lord Darnley, the murdered second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots), from her family archives.

 

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