by Lynn on December 18, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Red face of furyAt the Theatre Machine, 376 Dufferin St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sophie Ann Rooney
Composed and played by Cat Montgomery
Set, lighting, sound and film designed by Sophie Ann Rooney
Choreography by Melissa Robertson
Starring: Olunike Adeliyi
Chris Hapke
Jessica Kennedy
William MacDonald
Scott McCulloch
Suzannah Moore
Jesse Nerenberg
Melissa Robertson
Danka Scepanovic
Jimi Shlag
Tim Walker
Leia Warren

A production defeated by ambition; a concept that’s simply bizarre and actors out of their depth.

The Story. Well you know the story, right? A slaughtering machine of a soldier named Macbeth meets three witches, after he defeats an opposing army in battle, who greet him with a title he doesn’t have (yet) and tell him that he will be king. They also tell Macbeth’s soldier in arms, Banquo, that he will be the father of kings. Soon after that Macbeth is in fact bestowed with that new title and he begins to think of murdering his way to the crown, just to speed things along. He’s aided by his lady-wife who is the real cold-bloody brain in that family. She eggs him on to kill King Duncan while Duncan’s a guest in their castle. Not nice. And so the murders begin. Macbeth gets the crown and keeps killing to keep it. It ends badly, as these things do.

The Production. The audience generally sits facing the stage in the newly renamed Theatre Machine (formerly Unit 102). For this production there are also interactive seats along the sides of the playing area. Audience members who sit there know that in a way they will be part of the action. They don’t move from the seats, but at times they put on a robe and hood, or sip drinks and eat the plate of food that is given to them by other robed and hooded characters, who also sit in those side seats. A neon blue V of light on the floor comes down stage from upstage in front of the side seats, meeting in the front of the centre section of the audience. Projections flash on the back wall. To the left of that is a trough.

The witches wear the same black robes with hoods when they enter and set the murky, dark tone of the play. They prophecy when the battle that is raging will be ‘lost and won.’ And they foretell that they are going to meet Macbeth. At that meeting they will tell Macbeth of his future honours, which will get his bloody ambition going into overdrive, with his lady wife driving him on.

Duncan’s son Malcolm is there to learn from an admiring ‘bloody soldier’ just what an effective killing machine Macbeth is and how treacherous the Thane of Cowdor has been. When Duncan announces that Macbeth will now take the title of Thane of Cowdor (because he will be off-ed for treason) Malcolm does not seem happy at that news. In fact he seems downright worried. Why, I wondered? Why does director Sophie Ann Rooney have Malcolm (Jesse Nerenberg) react as if he knows something that the rest of the court doesn’t?

At this early point there are several eye-brow knitting moments. The witches are not identified in the cast of characters. An oversight? How odd. In her program note, Rooney says that her theme is: “Black Magic and …the modern (or future) world that it lives in” and the point is to ignite discussion. Hmmmm. Is it Black Magic that has Malcolm know things before anyone else does that Macbeth’s promotion is problematic? Then the witches aren’t the only one in that world. In a way not naming them in the program seems to make them irrelevant, and of course if you go by the play, they are very relevant. They know how to play mind-games with a susceptible mind.

In Rooney’s concept Malcolm represents the new world order (more on that in the Comment below) so she has him dressed in a suit, white shirt and tie, or sometimes just the pants, white shirt and tie, even in battle. Ok, I’m suspending my disbelief.

But then Ross and others arrive and are told by Duncan to go and find Macbeth to tell him he is now the Thane of Cowdor. Ross and a few others of his followers are played by women as women characters—the language has been changed to reflect this casting. And they are dressed a black bra, black bikini briefs, black stockings and stiletto heels. My eye-brows are knitting. These ladies would not look out of place on certain street corners in the city. Again, Rooney has a concept and reason for this costuming but it certainly escapes me. There is no credit for costumes in the program. Another oversight, or just saving somebody embarrassment?

When the scantily clad Ross and her companion meet Macbeth and Banquo on the way back from battle, it doesn’t illicit so much as a hint of a ‘rise’ in the two men. Nothing. As if meeting two women in their undies and heels is a natural occurrence. Bizarre.

Both Macbeth and Banquo return from battle in black pants, boots, black t-shirt and a black vest for Macbeth. As Macbeth, William MacDonald is matcho acting, with a bald head and a goatee. He looks like a ‘biker’ which isn’t a bad thing. He handles the language reasonably well, except he mispronounces the name “Seyton” as “Satan” instead of “Seeton”. And he does it twice. I wanted to say, “No, honey you’re Satan and that innocent man is “Seeton”, your helper”. Sigh.

As inexpressive as Macbeth is with the scantily clad Ross, Macbeth is all over Lady Macbeth when they meet. This is a sexy, sensual couple who lust after each other, kiss deeply and mingle their saliva with gusto. Early on she is always pushing him. When Macbeth gets into the killing groove he will shut her out.

I do a lot of wondering about director Rooney’s choices. I wonder why a score and the playing of it by Cat Montgomery is necessary to underscore the whole play when the playing is so loud for most of it that it obscures some of the speaking. Do we really need music to show us where the drama is, in Shakespeare! I wonder why there is an intermittent loud torrent of water falling from the ceiling into the trough, again drowning out what is being said. Is it rain? Pathetic Fallacy? Faulty Plumbing?

Added to that is a torrent of water that falls into the trough upstage left, again, so loudly it drowns out the dialogue. At times I think it’s rain, but often it falls when the scene is indoors, so that can’t be right. Perhaps it’s pathetic fallacy—when nature is in harmony with the mood. But again, it’s hard to tell the point of it. Or perhaps it’s just faulty plumbing. Mystifying and so annoying it’s so loud. But why is it there at all.

Much of the focus of scenes and the blocking is problematic. Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene, in which she tries desperately to rub out an imagined spot of blood on her hand, is done way upstage, at the trough of water, with her back to us. We can only imagine how she is washing her hands because we can’t see it!

Banquo is murdered centre stage but in gloomy light and his eyeballs are probably gouged out. But when he appears next to haunt Macbeth at his own banquet, Rooney has him dressed in a crisp, clean white suit without any hint of blood or wounds about him. Is the white suit supposed to suggest that Banquo is angelic? Mystifying.

And again, his placement is odd. Rooney has him enter quietly and sit in one of the side chairs in profile so we don’t really see who he is. An opportunity squandered to really show Macbeth being spooked by a bloody vision. Again, Rooney’s point is mystifying.

Occasionally murders that usually happen on stage illuminating the bloodiness of the play, in this case happen off-stage. Lady Macduff escapes her assailant’s grip, runs off stage only to be caught and killed where we don’t see it. The same with Macbeth. He is in a fight with Macduff, and is winner by all accounts but then runs off, chased by Macduff. Macduff returns with a bloody sack inside of which is the head of Macbeth. I want to yell, “It’s Shakespeare, not Greek drama! We see the blood and gore on stage.”

As Macbeth, William MacDonald is strapping and imposing and does a credible job of this part. In her Shakespeare debut, as Lady Macbeth Olunike Adeliyi has the animal magnetism of the Lady and does a valiant job trying to get a handle on the language and the subtleties of the character.

Danka Scepanovic plays both Ross and the Porter, generally with a sneer. This actress is capable of better.

As Malcolm, Jesse Nerenberg is doing Macbeth double duty. Last month Nerenberg was also in Shakespeare BASH’d’s production of Macbeth at the Monarch Tavern (alas time got away and while I saw that intriguing, inventive production, I ran out of time to write a review). Nerenberg played Ross then. In the Sterling Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth Nerenberg plays a very confident Malcolm. Nerenberg says the words trippingly, almost too fast, because while the words come out as conversation, I’m not sure that Nerenberg thinks about what the character is actually saying.

And as Macduff, Tim Walker is comfortable in the role. He handles the language and the nuances with ease and accomplishment. In the killer scene in which he finds out his family is dead, Walker does a moving job. I am grateful for his work.

Comment. I can appreciate that actors and directors want to test themselves against who is arguably the most challenging playwright—Shakespeare. There are few companies that do Shakespeare as a matter of course, so opportunities don’t often present themselves. Those with Shakespearian experience have an advantage in getting the few jobs. What of the others perhaps with little or no experience who want to ‘do’ Shakespeare? They make their own luck and create their own work, just like the Sterling Theatre Company does in this production. I applaud the pluck and tenacity to do the job.

I can’t applaud that so much of Sophie Ann Rooney’s direction makes no sense and so many actors in the production are totally out of their depth and Rooney can’t help them even with proper pronunciation (the aforementioned Seyton.) Or how about ‘Sirrah’. In Shakespeare it’s pronounced like ‘syrup’, with the accent on the first syllable. In this production it is pronounced like ‘sir AHH’ as in a popular Doris Day song. Sigh.

Sophie Ann Rooney says that “…Shakespeare deals with his tragedies..(in which) he introduces a world, that world is then destroyed and a “New World Order” is put in place.” Actually it’s not just Shakespeare—it’s all drama. All of it. One person is in one world and someone else wants it. At the end the old world is gone and the new world and a new victor remains. It’s called drama. Rooney is so busy imposing her concept on the play she doesn’t recognize that truism. Dire.

A Sterling Theatre Company Production.

Opened: Dec. 6, 2014
Closes: Dec. 20, 2014
Cast: 12: 6 men, 6 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Will December 19, 2014 at 7:27 am

Enter a Messenger

Bless you, fair dame! I am not to you known,
Though in your state of honour I am perfect.
I doubt some danger does approach you nearly:
If you will take a homely man’s advice,
Be not found here; hence, with your little ones.
To fright you thus, methinks, I am too savage;
To do worse to you were fell cruelty,
Which is too nigh your person. Heaven preserve you!
I dare abide no longer.

Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm?
Enter Murderers

What are these faces?
First Murderer
Where is your husband?
I hope, in no place so unsanctified
Where such as thou mayst find him.
First Murderer
He’s a traitor.
Thou liest, thou shag-hair’d villain!
First Murderer
What, you egg!
Stabbing him

Young fry of treachery!
He has kill’d me, mother:
Run away, I pray you!

Exit LADY MACDUFF, crying ‘Murder!’ Exeunt Murderers, following her


2 Will December 19, 2014 at 7:30 am

—used as a form of address implying inferiority in the person addressed


3 Will December 19, 2014 at 7:37 am

​According to The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, the word “Seyton” only appears four times (not counting stage directions, etc.) in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the first three being in the passage we are examining, the last being a short command to the servant later in the same scene (Spevack). Therefore, even if Seyton’s character appears onstage at some point before Macbeth calls to him, his name is unknown to the audience up until then. The name “Seyton,” although somewhat common in Shakespeare’s time, mostly as a last name (, is not common now, as evident by my searching twenty different name-meaning databases, only to find four with the name, with all four defining “Seyton” as “Attendant to Macbeth” (“Names – Meaning of Seyton – Name Meaning”). All of these findings suggest that even if Seyton was a name in Shakespeare’s time, it is very likely that Shakespeare used the name for its homophone relationship with “Satan.”


4 Will December 19, 2014 at 7:51 am

I have no words:
My voice is in my sword: thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out!
They fight

Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.
Despair thy charm;
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripp’d.
Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cow’d my better part of man!
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. I’ll not fight with thee.
Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o’ the time:
We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted on a pole, and underwrit,
‘Here may you see the tyrant.’
I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’

Exeunt, fighting. Alarums