Putting aside director Robert O'Hara speculations in the program guide—regarding the meaning of the Scottish play, why it was written, and why it was first performed when it was—the darkest story in the Shake-spearean canon still has a few secrets to yield.
The ideas for O'Hara's adaptation, with the witches and all females in the story played by men, comes from a line of Banquo's, where he notes that the witches seem like men, because they have some hair on their face. It was a jest on Banquo's part, since witches are often depicted as having some chin hair and, of course, at the time, they would have been played by men; it's also worth noting that the witches themselves refer to their boss, Hecate, as "she," and that others refer to the witches as "hags." So, for the wrong reasons, the one redeeming factor in this misinterpreted gender-bending is that, at least in one respect, we see this performed as it would have been during the Elizabethan age, with men playing all the roles, had it actually been performed then.
|The three witches|
(L to R) Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, Kim Fischer, and Joe Goldammer
However, the play was never performed during Edward de Vere's or Queen Elizabeth's lifetime. The playwright embargoed it, because it was a highly critical metaphor regarding the Queen's signing off on her cousin Mary's execution. As old nobility, de Vere was appalled by regicide,1 yet he was required to sit on the council that heard the case in the Star Chamber (a location which, forever after, came to be associated with a legal charade, the outcome of which has been predetermined). So, it is an Elizabethan tragedy (not a Jacobean tragedy, as the program guide claims), written in the Elizabethan age, but first performed during Jacobean times. Certainly King James I (a Scot), who followed Elizabeth on the English throne, knew why this was written; after all, it was his mother who was beheaded.2
Granted, the story was adapted by de Vere from a one-of-a-kind, unpublished manuscript he received from the private archive of the countess of Lennox, mother of Lord Darnley, the murdered second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots; thus, Macbeth was topical in multiple ways when he wrote it, as were all his comedies and tragedies and the character stand-ins within each. Moreover, it was from this source material, a chronicle of the Kings of Scotland not published until the nineteenth century, from which the portrait of a scolding and brutal Lady Macbeth, as well as a brooding and hesitant Macbeth, were borrowed. There are dozens of additional details, found in this manuscript, that appear in this play and nowhere else.3
(L to R) Alec Hynes as Banquo
and Ariel Shafir as Macbeth
We are also troubled by O'Hara remarks framing Elizabethan society in terms of today's standards, as if "political correctness" were a legitimate measure of morality, instead of a crude means to strip the past of context and to thereby cloak oneself in the robes of moral superiority, as if we lived in enlightened times.
However, by ignoring O'Hara's questionable reasoning behind his adaptation, and focusing on the action of the play itself, as he has devised it, a number of interesting insights come out regarding the dialectic between Macbeth's ambitions and his temptation by the witches to "jump the life to come." The key directorial decision here is O'Hara's use of the site from which the witches call upon the forces of darkness—acting independently of their superior, Hecate, to tap into "the future"—as the central point (and center of the turntable) around which the most important action is organized.
(L to R) Adam Poss as Lady Macbeth
and Ariel Shafir as Macbeth
During the opening scene, in which the witches set the mood for the drama, O'Hara, scenic designer Jason Sherwood, and lighting designer Alex Jainchill project various magical symbols (much as one might find in the famous esoteric monograph, The Key of Solomon the King, by S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers—or in the overlays on the current BBC television series, Sherlock), arranged in concentric circles around a center point that is alternately a cauldron, dais, bed, table, and worm hole to another dimension. Coincidentally, all of this is in concert with de Vere's acquaintance with the work of John Dee, the famed mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.
Each of these concentric circles operates as an independent orbit on the turntable, providing a multi-layed metaphor relative to both the time being shifted ("jump the life to come"), and the character being transported. Essentially, this becomes a four-dimensional setting with the addition—above the stage, on the Space Theatre's ceiling—of another magical circle, with an inscribed pentagram, which alternates its lighting scheme to signify shifts in the energy or plot.
|A short-lived reign|
(L to R) Ariel Shafir as Macbeth
and Adam Poss as Lady Macbeth
The upshot of this occult theme is that we see the story as being initiated and conveyed by the witches, who have created an unnatural series of events via their insubordination to Hecate and their breach of magical principles. Layered upon all of this is O'Hara's addition of a coven of male witches, who amplify various ritual acts through dances, conjuring what forces they may. Some of this feels superfluous, lengthening the production unnecessarily; but, one place where a ritualistic formation adds to the dynamics is the moving trees of Burnham Woods, as both a symbolic tour de force, representing the 10,000 strong English army in the service of Malcolm, as well as a precise and militaristic exercise.
Add in the projections, lighting, and pulsating techno-pop track, as well as Dede M. Ayite's evocative costumes that harken to graphic novels, video games, and the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret, with a dash of Goth flavoring and a pinch of Elizabethan finery, and one could be in a themed dance club. Now there's a hook for younger audiences to be drawn into the joys and intracacies of Shake-speare!
|"But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,|
We’d jump the life to come."
—Macbeth, I, vii, 6-7
Ariel Shafir as Macbeth
In Ariel Shafir's Macbeth, we see all the rough edges of a gritty Scots war chief who, through battlefield success, achieves a noble rank, second only to Duncan, the King (Gareth Saxe). Yet, before our eyes, his strength and cunning, which brought him so close to the pinnacle of power, evaporates from the heat of his greed, bloodlust, and delusions of grandeur. Shafir's tempo and nuance through all the classic speeches is genuine and convincing, with the exception of the soliloquy following Lady Macbeth's suicide, where his Macbeth appears too numb and too far gone to convince us that his heart is further broken; yet, it seems critical, as Macbeth's world unwinds, that Lady Macbeth's death should be an additional blow to his state.
Saxe is emminently regal, enhanced by Ayite's design of the kingly vestaments, as he rules from a throne represented by his appearance half-way up the steps of the first level in the newly renovated Space Theatre (which now allows for freer access for the actors in the aisles that run up to the second level). O'Hara makes good use of this feature with the ensemble as well, giving the audience a visceral taste of the witches and their brigade.
The honor of playing Lady Macbeth goes to Adam Poss, who conveys a certain "Je ne sais quoi" which, along with Ayite's evocative costumes—a corset, an abbreviated skirt frame—and excellent wigs and makeup, drives the point home regarding the strong physical, emotional, and mental bond between the lady and her warrior.
Banquo must be prescient and haunting, a prognosticator and a ghost, and Alec Hynes conveys this time-bending persona with intensity and aplomb. Of course, it is Macduff who is the catalyst for the last phase of the catharsis, and Joel Reuben Ganz shoulders all of Macduff's crushing blows and holds all of Macduff's righteous revenge. Rob Fenton mines a delicate balance of youth and leadership as Malcolm. Keith D. Gallagher's countenance as the Porter, tells the whole story. Nice work by the entire cast.
What would usually be described as fight choreography is movement developed by the ensemble, something akin to "the martial arts meet Spock."
In all, an entertaining piece, despite the interpretive dissonance and a few moments here and there.
Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Macbeth runs through October 29th. For tickets: denvercenter.or/shows/macbeth.
1 The entrapment (by Lord Burghley and his spies) in setting up the series of events that led to Mary's arrest, because of her Catholicism, was also a sore point with the playwright, given that he dabbled in Catholicism at various times in his life, though never enough to be prosecuted, despite a few close calls.
2 Thus, the play itself was one more reason for James to like "Shake-speare." Perhaps a draft reached the king early in his reign, before he kindly continued de Vere annuity of £1,000 a year, awarded to him originally by Elizabeth for a few reasons, including the writing of the history plays, which served as an argument for Tudor legitimacy.
3 Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Press, New York, 2005, p.72.