by Lynn on June 1, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Julie Fox
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Composed by Steven Page
Cast: Sarah Afful
Michael Blake
Tim Campbell
David Collins
Declan Cooper
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings
Peter Hutt
Robert King
Ian Lake
Cyrus Lane
Krystin Pellerin
Lanise Antoine Shelley
E.B. Smith
Scott Wentworth
Brigit Wilson
Antoine Yared
Joseph Ziegler

Director Antoni Cimolino has a vivid, clear idea of the dark foreboding of the play, interesting ideas about being haunted by your actions and has a strong Macbeth in Ian Lake, but the cast is uneven and that tends to bog down the production.

The Story. Let’s all recall our high school Shakespeare class when we ploughed through this one. Macbeth is a one-man slaughtering force. When he’s finished ‘slicing and dicing’ his enemy and ready to go home he and Banquo, his comrade in battle, see three witches in the dark woods who prophecy that Macbeth will earn more titles (The Thane of Cawdor) and will be king ‘hereafter’ and that Banquo will be the father of kings. King Duncan then makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor thus leading Macbeth to give over to the idea of being king and even sees who might be in his way. When he writes to his lady wife of the three witches and the prophecy, Lady Macbeth goes into high planning mode to making her husband the king. She plants the idea in his mind that he must kill Duncan as he sleeps in their house and begin his ascent. After much bloodshed it doesn’t end well for Macbeth or his lady, to name but two.

The Production. Director Antoni Cimolino and his accomplished creative team have created a dark, oppressive world that is so right for Macbeth. As the audience files in Julie Fox’s dark set of twisted trees, branches and other grown tells you this is not a place in which you would go hiking, even in the eleventh century. Her costumes are rustic, sturdy, and in many cases ready for battle. In the background is subtle rumbling that gives way to cracking thunder closer to curtain. The screeching sounds of birds and animals in that gloomy wood unsettles too. (kudos to Thomas Ryder Payne). Michael Walton’s lighting adds shading and shadows. All in all a combination that leaves one ready to enter this world of trouble and menace.

Ian Lake is a fine Macbeth. He’s an intelligent actor who finds the shading and variation in the characters he’s played over the years. In Macbeth he plays not only the ruthless warrior but also the unsettled premeditated murderer who then ‘eases’ into being a single minded murdering machine. He wants that crown. He gives into the suggestion of the three witches that he will become the king. His wife eggs him on. He follows through but with moments of doubt. Lake gives a strong, confident performance as Macbeth.

As Lady Macbeth, Krystin Pellerin has the steel but not the nuance or subtlety of the Lady. Lady Macbeth knows how to manipulate to get her way. She is a gracious host when Duncan and his retinue come to stay at the Macbeth’s castle. She is coy and affectionate with Duncan to charm him. It would follow that she would know how to push and prod her husband in subtle ways to do what he has to do to get the crown. That is missing in Pellerin’s performance. She is steel throughout. She is forceful and almost bullying. Even the line in which she says she would have killed Duncan herself if he hadn’t looked so much like her father, is said with the same steely resolve, instead of ‘framing’ it in a varied voice, thus showing the audience this threw her. That is the beginning of her decent into madness. The audience has to see it. It doesn’t here. It results in a one noted performance.

The three witches of Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, Lanise Antoine Shelley and Brigit Wilson are dandy. Frightening, haunting, foreboding. And having Lanise Antoine Shelley’s eyes for the Third Witch completely white is an inspired, spooky touch.

Scott Wentworth is a perceptive, watchful Banquo. He is aware that Macbeth has changed since the witches’ prophecy and not for the good. Antoni Cimolino sets Banquo apart, reacting subtly so that the audience is also aware of Banquo’s concern. It’s subtle touches such as this one that makes this production so interesting.

Also interesting are bold inventions in Cimolino’s production. Not content with showing the ghost of bloody Banquo in a beautifully rendered banquet scene, Cimolino adds another apparition that makes perfect sense. Intriguing.

The killing of Lady Macduff (a fierce Sarah Afful) is particularly startling and illuminates the brutality of that society.

There are a couple of instances that do knit my eyebrows. Macbeth orders the killing of Banquo and his son Fleance while they go riding in the dark wood. Three thugs wait for them in the darkness. When Banquo and Fleance approach they light their way with a torch. The thugs pounce and thrash at Banquo and Fleance. Banquo is murdered and Fleance escapes. The problem is that we don’t see any of this because it’s all done in a blackout. We hear the screams and Banquo orders Fleance to “fly”, but we don’t see it because it’s done in darkness. And the darkness happens several lines before one of the murderers questions “Who did strike out the light?” I wonder why Cimolino would do this important scene in darkness, when it’s vital for the audience to see it? I get my answer in the next scene. The lights pop up stage right of the supposed murder and there is an elaborately set banquet table, with chairs, candelabra and other decorations, all created in silence and in short order. Shades of the famous quick changes of the late Robin Phillips. So Cimolino sacrifices the audience seeing a vital scene to provide needed darkness to set up the dazzle of the next scene. Hmmmm. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Also vital and emotionally charged is the scene between Ross and Macduff when Ross has to reluctantly tell Macduff that his family has been killed. Rather than being gripping, Cimolino diffuses the emotion of it with odd staging. When Macduff (Michael Blake) asks Ross (David Collins) about his family, Ross averts his eyes by not looking straight at Macduff and saying off-handedly that his family is fine. At this point Michael Blake as Macduff looks quizzically at Ross—he senses something is wrong. Instead of staging the scene so that Macduff forces Ross to look him in the face and tell him the bad news, Cimolino has Macduff walk downstage, looking concerned at the audience with Ross looking at Macduff’’s back when he tells him the bad news. Macduff then walks upstage and further queries Ross. It should be a gut-wrenching scene with both men locking eyes and not allowing the other to look way. Here it’s diffused. There are two men who are grieving in this scene: Ross and Macduff, not just Macduff. We don’t see it because of Cimolino’s fussy, distracting staging. One also wishes that David Collins and Michael Blake were stronger actors who could ring every ounce of emotion from a scene brimming with it.

Comment. By casting two young actors as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth I would think director Antoni Cimolino is appealing to a younger audience. Fair enough. Young actors are great as long as they are up to the task. That Ian Lake is such a strapping young man and is often shirtless might add to the appeal. That’s brave—it’s Scotland. It’s cold even in August. All the other characters are dressed to the chin in heavy fabrics even when in bed. Macbeth is shirtless. But I digress.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays, and that’s saying something. It’s a play about ruthless ambition, superstition, psychological mind bending, foreboding and being unsettled. Antoni Cimolino realizes this world with clarity and boldness. While I have concerns with some staging and acting, on the whole this is a production that realizes the world of the play. It’s well worth a visit.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 30, 2016.
Closes: Oct. 23, 2016.
Cast: 28: 20 men, 8 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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