I like to think of myself as a Shakespeare aficionado, but even having had season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre, and going to Shakespearean performances at other places, it’s kind of amazing the number of shows that I have neither read nor seen performed. And not just the obscure titles, but I didn’t see Hamlet until I was probably a senior in college. I’d performed the gravedigger scene, and knew vaguely the story (more specifically that it was the inspiration for The Lion King), but hadn’t seen a performance. What was up with that?
My history with Macbeth was even murkier. As a part of our year-long exploration of poetry in the 4th grade, we had to memorize and perform poems weekly in front of our peers. One of those weeks, there was a choice to learn the Witches verse from Act 4, scene 1. I don’t think it was the entire thing, but enough to give the flavor of the language and humor. But for a long time, that was my experience with Macbeth. I knew that superstitious actors would call it “The Scottish Play” backstage for fear of accident, but other than that, I think I made it to my thirties without having ever seen it properly performed.
When the Boy and I started dating, I think that fact came up and he was appalled. As a fellow Shakespeare fan, he set out to remedy that right away, and so we watched the terrific version of Macbeth from 2010 which showed on BBC/PBS starring Sir Patrick Stewart. That version is set in a sort of 1940s/50s Russia-esque time, and Stewart is amazing as always. It was particularly nice to be watching that performance on Amazon streaming, because it meant that we could pause, and have the Boy explain the historical context of the story to me at various points, and also to explain what was going on with the plot as I’d never read the play either.
So going into the Shakespeare Theatre’s latest production of Macbeth, I felt better prepared. Their version this year is set in a contemporary war-torn African country. Their Macbeth becomes a Gaddafi-like-dictator with an elaborate lifestyle including a Jaguar which is rolled out onstage. The witches here are intelligence operatives from some Western country who know the future because they’ve been spying on the present; who seemingly puppeteer the entire chain of events. It feels very real, and very brutal, which in the context of dictatorship in that time and place make a lot of sense.
One of the more interesting performances is from Nikkole Salter as Lady Macbeth. She is presented as an equal, or perhaps more intelligent than her husband. He is a soldier – an officer even – but she is first seen lounging around in her worn Harvard tee-shirt, obviously having escaped and achieved, only to be drawn back to her country by the need to marry. It’s easy to see her ambition and frustrations with a husband who cannot do everything right, who even forgets to leave the murder weapons in their incriminating positions after killing the (here) Queen. She is the one who makes small talk with other powerful people, who tries to reign in her husband when he starts seeing visions.
It is a fascinating modern production. The Shakespeare Theatre could not have chosen someone better to direct – Liesl Tommy, who grew up with the strife in South Africa before apartheid ended, and who recently directed “Eclipsed” on Broadway, another story about lives being torn apart by war in Africa. Additionally, while the costuming is lush and helps to set the scene, the spare stage with it’s minimalist decor makes it simple to transform with the movement of lighted poles and a few hangings or furniture pieces.
If you too have been lax in your viewing of the classics of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, or are looking for a new take on a story that you’ve seen many times before, this show is definitely worth your time. Though I will say, that at nearly three hours, don’t be surprised if you start feeling antsy towards the end.