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A Scottish King in an Asylum: The Old Globe’s Macbeth Hot

Yuko Kurahashi
Written by Yuko Kurahashi     July 18, 2016    
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A Scottish King in an Asylum: The Old Globe’s Macbeth

Photos: Jim Cox

  • Macbeth
  • by William Shakespeare
  • The Old Globe
  • June 19 - July 24, 2016
Acting 3
Costumes 4
Sets 3
Directing 3
Overall 3

The Old Globe production of Macbeth, directed by Brian Kulick, Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company in New York City, uses the motif of a hospital and asylum in World War I to situate the title character’s "spur" and desire for power within a context of madness. The result is an ambivalent work with a hint of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, leaving the audience disjointed between staging elements and the Bard’s lines.

Entering the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, the audience sees six hospital beds and classic wicker chairs placed in a semi-circle on a round area of the Theatre’s thrust stage. Upstage is a white cyclorama with six wall lamps and one door stage right on the cyclorama. In each bed a wounded soldier lies, wrapped in white bandages. Director Kulick uses three of the patients (lunatic, as well as wounded) as the Witches, linking supernatural forces and the madness of the Great War. It is into this hospital room that King Duncan (Jerome Preston Bates) enters with his sons Malcolm (Daniel Petzold), Donalbain (Kevin Hafso-Koppman), and a Scottish thane Lennox (James Joseph O’Neil), all wearing long overcoats and caps in navy blue and black boots. Demanding the poor “bleeding Sergeant” (Amara James Aja) give a detailed report of the battle, Kulick has Aja sit in one of the wheelchairs. A nurse translates his words, which are difficult to understand because of the bandages around his face. This opening gives a clear sense of the brutality of the war.

This hospital/asylum metaphor continues the entire performance and, as the show progresses, it becomes a major hindrance for the audience. In Act 1, Scene 3, Macbeth (Jonathan Cake) and Banquo (Timothy Stickney) wander into the abandoned hospital (not into a heath) where three lunatic patients—who may exist only in the minds of Macbeth and Banquo—give a prophecy. At his castle, Macbeth kills Duncan while he sleeps in a hospital bed. In Act 4, Scene 1, the witches and Hecate are portrayed as straitjacketed asylum inmates. When Lady Macbeth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) loses her mind, she is admitted to the asylum. In Act 5, the Dunsinane castle court is transformed into, again, an asylum, where Cake's disheveled Macbeth lies on a bed, wearing pajama pants and an overcoat over his naked upper body. He is then “ready” to fight using only his IV stand as a weapon. This series of recurrening asylum images make the audience to wonder if they are only watching Macbeth’s nightmares or hallucinations instead of the story of Macbeth.

The designers underscore the director’s metaphors. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado makes the first hospital scene stark white, cold, and sterile, in contrast to red used the middle of the show; after the murder of Duncan, a red, vinyl curtain is drawn and after the intermission, the white, round floor is replaced by a red one. Later, Maldonado returns to the cool white tone after Macbeth begins to exhibit an unstable mind.

Costume designer Oana Botez captures the transformation after the coronation of Macbeth. While all of the characters, including Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, wear navy-blue uniforms in the first part of the show, for the top of the scene after the intermission Botez chooses black tuxedos for the courtiers and Macbeth, a black evening dress for Lady Macbeth, and slim silhouetted red dresses for the ladies at the court. The combination of black, red, and white suggest both the Macbeths’ bloody deals and the wealth and position they obtained as a result. Lighting designer Jason Lyons keeps a cool tone for the most of the scenes, but for the murder scenes he accentuates the atmosphere with disturbingly orange light. High frequency tones from sound designers Sten Severson and David Thomas create a dissonant mood.

Though individually strong and experienced actors, Jonathan Cake’s Macbeth and Marsha Stephanie Blake’s Lady’s Macbeth didn’t create a sense of chemistry between them. Cake tries too hard to be charming while Blake uses a single level and rhythm. She delivers all her lines in the same commanding way, constantly nagging and yelling at her husband. The navy-blue uniform (a skirt, a jacket, and a cap) she wears to receive her most “honorable” guest King Duncan not only emphasizes her militant attitude and aura but gives an impression that she holds rank in the military. Although Kulick seems to try and compensate for the lack of chemistry between Cake and Blake by adding lovemaking to their plotting, they do not seem to be a cohesive couple.

Kulick’s strength lies in the feast scenes and the famous porter knocking scene. The feast for Duncan takes place behind the cyclorama, while servants bring bottles of wine and champagne, one hears the sounds of the guests tapping tables, cheering, and chanting. All the while on the front of the stage, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth concoct their plot to murder the King. In the porter scene, Kulick has the porter (John Lavelle) engaged in a sexual act with one of the gentlewomen (Talley Beth Gale), thereby increasing the sexual connotations of his lines and justifying to the audience why the porter doesn't open the door right away.

Sadly, the relationships between the characters, their actions, lines, and props are left undeveloped. For example, in Act 2, Scene 1, Banquo’s son Fleance (Ajinkya Desai) is sleeping in a corner of the castle when Banquo enters to wake him up, making the relationship between the two ambiguous. Banquo’s line “Here, take my sword.” is mismatched with the small knife that Stickney’s Banquo gives Desai as Fleance. When Macbeth kills Duncan while sleeping in bed, the audience is not able to see him “stubbing” him. Instead, Cake seems to be busy patting the pillows to activate fake blood. Macduff’s son is portrayed by a small-child size puppet and his lines are delivered by Cake, which complicates our interpretation of the scene.

The pinnacle of the show, the fight between Macduff and Macbeth, is staged with pistols and the characters lower their guns to engage in long speeches; a lengthy speech in a fight scene is more believable in a sword fight where characters maneuver, parry, and thrust. After the death of Macbeth, three gurneys with Lady Macbeth, Young Siward (Lorenzo Landini) and Macbeth are wheeled onto the stage, creating a “postmortem” atmosphere. This unfortunately does not go well with Macduff and Malcolm’s lines celebrating a new beginning for Scotland.

In the program notes, Kulick states his intention to “help the audience get closer to what Shakespeare was after” by creating an environment that is more in tune to our contemporary imagination. Unfortunately, clinical, sterile, and trench-war images do not allow us to enter the story of a man who is consumed by the darkness of his soul in times of war and intrigue.

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