One of the pleasures of attending different productions of Shakespeare is to see how the director has discovered different meanings in the Bard’s text and presents them. The Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Macbeth, directed by Liesl Tommy, created an exquisite transformative work through historicization, gender-bending, and scenography.
The locale of this production is an unspecified war-torn country in Africa with head-scarves and bright African garments for the women (designed by Kathleen Geldard) and multiracial casting. Prior to the scene of Duncan (Queen Duncan in this production, performed by Petronia Paley) and her children—her son Malcolm played by Cory Allen and Donalbain (in this production, her daughter) played by Nicole King—Tommy adds a scene that shows the villagers fleeing from soldiers. At the end of this scene, a soldier, with the help of another, fakes a wound. It is this soldier that reports Macbeth’s valor to Duncan, making Macbeth’s heroism questionable.
Tommy sets the play in the context of American involvement in post-colonial nations. The three witches, performed by Tim Getman, David Bishins, and Naomi Jacobson, are Western intelligent agents who manipulate Macbeth. At the stage-right wing of the Sidney Harman Hall’s proscenium stage is a computer console, suggesting their headquarters. Field agents observe and report, to the intelligent headquarters, the murder of Banquo carried out by child soldiers, played by Brayden Simpson and Anu Yadav, recruited by Macbeth. The murder of Lady Macduff and her children is carried out by the same assassins.
Under Tommy’s direction, words are given new meanings to suit this context. For example, Macbeth’s second “meeting” with the witches in a heath is set in Macbeth’s clandestine meeting with the intelligent chief (Hecate) played by Stephen Elrod and the three agents. On a screen, they show a series of images, including a burning building as they recite “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” (Act IV, scene i).
Macbeth, blindfolded, is brought in along with boxes of cocaine and guns. This scene ends with Macbeth, after being questioned by Hecate, snorting cocaine. Macbeth’s choice of cocaine over guns explains why Macbeth’s army is easily overpowered by the joint forces of Macduff and Malcolm.
Scene designer John Coyne’s set consists of panels, beams, a chandelier, and a backdrop. The metallic-looking panels (each iridescent fabric panel was scrunched by the scenic artists, giving the impression of metal when illuminated (personal interview with Coyne)) are lowered and raised from and to the flying area, evoking the desolate atmosphere of the mountains and forests. A horizontal golden crack on the backdrop suggests the schism and destructive forces in Scotland. Collin K. Bills’s lighting accentuates these scenic elements.
In addition to the panels, a number of lighted tubes are lowered and raised into and out of the flying area. These vertical lights (strips of LED lights encased in a plastic tube) were built to look like fluorescent lights (personal interview with Coyne). As they change colors in blue, orange, and green, they serve as visually striking grids on a map while also suggesting transmission lines and wire-tapping by the intelligent agency.
Tommy’s careful directing pays attention not only to the political context but also to the individual background stories, circumstances, psychology, transitions, relationships, and “comical interludes.” The show starts with a sound effect of a baby crying, suggesting the Macbeths’ child whom they lost before the play starts. Then Lady Macbeth, sitting on a sofa, washes down pills with a drink. This scene, added by Tommy, is without words and foreshadows the downfall of the Macbeths. The “ghost” of their baby reappears in the second act when Lady Macbeth, losing her mind, tries to wash off imagined blood from her hands. Nikkole Salter’s Lady Macbeth dramatically displays a variety of emotions including greed, ambition, and sorrow.
Tommy creates an excellent transition between the murder of Duncan and Macbeth’s coronation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth arrive at Dunsinane in a luxurious car as the crowd raise and lower their right hands to show their loyalty to their new leader. In this scene as well as the fight and murder scenes, the music created by Broken Chord underscore the atmospheres.
Malcolm is shown comfortably living in a luxurious residence in exile. Malcolm receives Macduff, played by Marcus Naylor, in the patio. Malcolm sits in a garden chaise filled with blue cushions beside a table with a whisky bottle and glasses. His displayed comfort is why Malcolm give additional meaning why he is reluctant to fight at the beginning of the conversation.
Jesse J. Perez’s Macbeth delivers his soliloquy (divided into small sections) about his plot and justification during the reception to honor Queen Duncan. Each time he speaks, other characters freeze. Perez dexterously shows a sign of physical pain, embodying the conflict between his greed and fear.
Strong relationships between parents and children add another layer and depth to the characters. McKinley Belcher III’s Banquo shows his affection through a playful scene with his son Fleance, played by Brett Johnson. Lady Macduff, pregnant in this production, played by Nilanjana Bose, expresses her love to her witty daughter played by Trinity Sky Deabreu. Deabreau’s “Girl” (Macduff’s eldest son in Shakespeare’s text) tries to protect her mother from the assassins, kicking and scratching them before being killed. At the end of the scene the murderers put a rubber tire on and pour gasoline over Lady Macduff before dragging her off stage. This chilling image echoes many similiar incidents in civil wars in Africa.
Tommy emphasizes one comical scene (the "drunken porter" scene) in this gruesome tragedy. Myra Lucretia Taylor as the Porter stumbles through a row of the audience before getting to the door.
At the last scene, after the head of Macbeth is dragged away by Macduff, the three intelligent operatives take pictures of the corpses as they prepare for their next operation. The ghosts of Banquo, Lady Macduff, and other “dead” characters observe them. This ending suggests the prevalent cycle of violence and imperialism today.
Tommy is known for her direction of the Broadway production of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed which won her the Lucille Lortel Award and Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play. An immigrant from apartheid-era South Africa, many of her productions are set in specific times and locales inhabited by Africans and African Americans (California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet and Dallas Theater Center’s Les Misérables, for example). She created her concept of Western involvement in former colonies specifically for the DC’s Shakespeare Company. Although she states in her program notes that “this is a production for a D.C. audience,” I believe that this is a production for everyone.