Note: this article was also published on Neon Tommy.
Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare; produced by A Noise Within: seen March 15, 2014.
Scotland has had quite the bloody history: clan fights, kings constantly rising to power only to be replaced quickly, and of course being under the rule of the United Kingdom (which, considering the referendum on Scotland’s independence scheduled for this September, makes this even more relevant). This history is one of the many themes noted in the production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth at A Noise Within.
The show opens with a bang — somewhat literally: after the cast gathers, wearing robes to hint at the druidic influences of the play and the country, there is a bit of a battle, helped along with the firing of a starter pistol. Hanging from the ceiling is something in a bag: we don’t quite know what is in it, but after said battle, the three witches (Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb) cut it down, and use it with the opening dialogue as a sort of invocation — sending the show down the well-known story of power, ambition, and prophecy.
The fast-paced play rolls from action to action: from the prophecy of the three witches that Macbeth (Elijah Alexander) will be Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, to Macbeth’s sharing of said prophecy with his wife (Jules Willcox), to the murder of King Duncan (Matt Orduña) by Macbeth, to the ever-growing body count as Macbeth keeps trying to hold on to his power and keep the conspiracy going, there’s barely a moment to breathe. The few times the show does take a moment means the silence is effectively used, giving much more meaning to the scene.
Alexander’s acting, while decent, ends up being very even throughout the play. He plays Macbeth the same after hearing of Lady Macbeth’s death as when he is plotting the death of Banquo. When he gives the monologue about Lady Macbeth (“out, out, brief candle!”), he has very little emotion in his voice. If it’s intentional to show how far he’s gone, it doesn’t come across very well. In fact, it’s actually very difficult to see either his or Willcox’s portrayal as descending into madness as the plot gets thicker, and therefore Willcox’s final scene (the hand cleaning) comes a bit out of nowhere for her character.
Director Larry Carpenter makes some unusual choices. The first is having the witches played by men, and having them functon more like that of a Greek chorus. While the Greek chorus is a great idea, it’s a little unclear why — in a media landscape where females are vastly under-represented — Carpenter decided to take away three of the most powerful female characters in Shakespeare’s lexicon and give them to men.
In addition, Carpenter has Lady Macbeth as suffering from postpartum depression, having lost a child. The essay “Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and the Nature of Evil” in the program covers this concept, and while it was a fascinating interpretation, I’m not quite sure it works. It adds another theme, having the play be all about parenthood and children, about the necessary aspect of having an heir for royalty as well as the desire to be somewhat immortal by having a child. While an intriguing idea, it ends up being one theme too many and ends up muddling the play.
As the play wraps up — Macbeth has been beheaded, and Malcom is crowned the new king — Macbeth’s head is brought forward, in a bag. And as we see them string the bag up, the witches start to chant the opening scene again, bringing the play full-circle and showing that the cycle of violence is just another step in Scotland’s bloody history. “Macbeth” ends up being just another history lesson.
Macbeth plays at A Noise Within (3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena) through May 11. Tickets start at $34. For more information, visit ANoiseWithin.org.