The strange goings-on, documented and discussed for centuries, that surround the Bard's darkest tale are delivered in spades by the current production now running at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. In addition to the gritty and seductive importuning of the weird sisters, in this case two witches (Jamie Ann Romero and Nicole Bruce) and a warlock (Geoffrey Kent), director Jane Page's staging also draws attention to Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's self-inflicted curses, substantially amplifying the cautionary subtext, as the playwright would have wished.
Page sets the scene in "pre-Taliban Afghanistan," which we infer from the action to be before outright occupation by the U.S.S.R. on December 24, 1979 (and war against the mujahideen, trained and armed by Pakistani [ISI] and U.S. [CIA] intelligence services).1
|Liza de Weerd as Lady Macbeth|
and Nigel Gore as Macbeth
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
Caught between various superpowers (U.S.S.R., U.S.A., and China), Afghanistan has suffered repetitive regime changes. Even its own "nobility" has had little regard for each other. In the original setting of this play, Scotland and England pretended to hold themselves to different standards, where the notion of "the divine right of kings" seemingly held sway. The playwright (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) was old nobility and held this view as well; for example, when Macduff first sees the slain Scots king's body:
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece:
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence
The life o' th' building.
De Vere sat in the Star Chamber for the charade staged by his father-in-law and former guardian, Lord Burghley, William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's chief executive, to frame and then execute Mary, Queen of Scots.2 These proceedings so offended and shocked him (much as when his first cousin, the Duke of Norfolk [Thomas Howard] was executed for treason [Note: both Mary and Norfolk were Catholic]), that de Vere was impelled to unburden himself in Macbeth, a play that was never performed in his lifetime, since it was sharply critical of Elizabeth's eventual willingness to sign her half-sister Mary's death warrant. To those familiar with the text, then, Macduff's sensitivities upon seeing the murdered Duncan— expressed as a late-20th century Afghani far removed from any connection to the Califate (i.e., a spiritual lineage from Mohammed)—may not carry as much weight as the original. Additionally, the substitutions in the text, of Russia for England and Ireland, appear as confusing non-sequitors to those well-versed, leaving us to wonder what context we are supposed to find in the setting, or what universal extensions of the original message have been expanded?
At the time this play was written, Macbeth, an ancient Scot warrior, was a dim memory. Stratfordian advocates attribute the story as being solely taken from Hollingshed's Chronicles, since that is the credible extent to which their avaricious3 grain dealer-cum-genius could have accessed the story. These scholars will then note that the play varies greatly from the eventual published version. Much of the variance is accounted for by Oxfordians, who note that de Vere had access to a manuscript from the library of Margaret, Countess of Lennox—mother of Lord Darnby, murdered second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots—which sketches out dozens of details of Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's behavior.
Nigel Gore leaves no doubt that his Macbeth possesses the temerity and megalomania to cleanse Afghanistan of anyone he perceives, imagines, or projects as being a threat to his power. Before Macbeth succumbs to his instincts and ego, as well as the beseeching of his wife, there are moments when we must be convinced that he is seriously weighing the implications of what he is about to do. Here we find Gore's conveyance of the Macbeth's state of mind ...
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
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.
... shows us something altogether unique and powerful in the way he wrestles with fate. Like Greeks watching Oedipus, we know that Macbeth will succumb to his flaw, but we never know how he will succumb until we see it. In Gore's scansion, we pick up thrice (in this and other musings expressed to the fourth wall) on Macbeth's notion of jumping and overleaping the time to come. Thus, we come away with a noble figure who has wrestled with his demons and, tragically, lost.
The love and lust that Macbeth feels for Lady Macbeth (Liza de Weerd), and consequently his susceptibility to her lust for power—which she seeks as a substitute for the child who has vanished from their story4—must do battle with Macbeth's conscience before, tragically, he commits regicide. De Weerd and Gore conjure powerful chemistry in their brief meetings before the deed is done, so there is no doubt that de Weerd's Lady Macbeth exerts a strong influence over her man, whose nature she considers weak:
yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it
Lady Macbeth's unsexing of herself (after her loss of child) and calling her husband a wimp does not make it so, but it does embolden her to embolden him. We wonder how many women in Afghanistan, one of the most sexist places on the planet, would, in the 1970's have had the license to act this way. That aside, when de Weerd brings forth Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene and reveals her reversion to her female conscience, it is a redemptive moment to succor amidst the carnage. All this against an increasingly bloodthristy and paranoid Macbeth.
The evil let loose by Macbeth must be aimed against the righteous (Banquo [Sam Gregory] and Macduff [Nathan Stith]) and the innocent (Malcolm [Sean Scrutchins] and Donalbain [Alex Esola], as well as Macduff's children, and Banquo's son Fleance [James Miller]), all of which is clearly demonstrated by this host of talented actors.
Page adds a beautiful directorial moment at the very end, when, as Malcolm points to an optimistic future, Fleance is recognized as coming of age, given an adult outer garment, and a knife, which he eyes longingly. As Banquo's son, he is the only path by which the last of the witches prophesies shall come true, that Banquo's heirs shall be kings. Thus, the cycle of violence that Macbeth has set in motion has only reached a pause, not a conclusion, unless Fleance chooses to NOT jump the life to come. All things come to he who he who waits.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Macbeth runs in repertory with A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Richard II, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), and Women of Will through August 10th. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
1 The key scene in this determination being IV, iii, when Malcolm and Macduff meet in the U.S.S.R., plus the general absence of Soviet forces and references to Russia (except as a supporter of the rightful [deposed] regime), which we take to mean that they were not in control of Afghanistan at the time, making this roughly parallel to the English-Scot relationship in the original setting of the play, where a continguous England represented safety for Macduff, not imperial overlords. Thus, Page's metaphor works in this sense. It would not if Malcolm and Macduff met in the U.S.A. because the U.S.A. is a non-contiguous occupying power, not a temporary friendly neighbor helping to arm legitimate heirs to the throne or a disenfranchised democratically elected executive.
2 Anyone who doubts the parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Duncan must explain away the fact that Mary was in England under what was technically known as a "double trust." Macbeth says:
He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. ...
3 A recent discovery reveals that the Stratford man was a greedy grain dealer before he brought his ill-gotten gains to London and took up acting and stealing scripts (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/study-shows-shakespeare-ruthless-businessman). In addition to revealing a nature echoed in Ben Jonson's famous poem ("The Poet Ape"), which describes the Stratford man's habit of appropriating the work of others, the new evidence firmly contradicts the standard Stratfordian claim that the references to grain riots in Coriolanus (I, i, 67-74) are inextricably linked to events after 1604 (the year de Vere ["Oxford"] died). As noted elsewhere on this site in various reviews and in an essay, no orthodox arguments regarding 1604 hold up.
4 There is much speculation surrounding Lady Macbeth's comment:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me ...
She goes on to say:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
It's hard to imagine that the "unsexing" of Lady Macbeth took place while her child was still alive; rather, it is much more plausible that she is able to say this after having lost her child. In a curious, if perhaps unconscious, allusion in this production to this backstory, the three weird sisters mock Macbeth by delivering a devilish stillborn creature.