It is fitting that the Atlanta Shakespeare Company started their run of Macbeth on the night of the Harvest Moon. This delightfully terrifying production of The Scottish Play is the perfect way to start the fall season. As one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth can be both “foul and fair” to its director. Given that most people are already familiar with the plot of the play, Macbeth is therefore more accessible to the general viewing public. However, since everyone already knows what is supposed to happen, a director must rely on the strength of the actors and must also utilize effective lighting, sound, and staging techniques to keep the audience engaged. Veteran director Jeff Watkins combines all of these elements masterfully in this produce and delivers a thrilling theater experience.
The actors are phenomenal. Matt Nitchie and Dani Heard, fresh off of their great performances as Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, have great chemistry as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They play off one another beautifully and the physical transformation that both undergo as their characters delve deeper and deeper into madness is striking. The strong performances of these actors almost overshadows the other great performances by the rest of the cast. In the second half of the play, Kenneth Wigley and Troy Willis give truly excellent performances as Malcolm and Macduff, and yet the whole time I was watching them I was anxious to get back to more Macbeth and Lady Macbeth scenes. J. Tony Brown is also highly entertaining and shows his range as he transitions from playing Duncan to playing the Porter and several other characters with an ease that does not cause the audience any distraction.
While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth obviously drive the action of the play, the way a director chooses to interpret and display the Weird Sisters can make or break a production of Macbeth. As the first characters to appear on stage, the Weird Sisters set the tone for the entire play. Any time you are dealing with the supernatural you run the risk of the performance coming off as silly and distracting from the overall dark nature of the play (especially when performed around Halloween when there are cartoon witches everywhere you look). The last thing you want is people laughing at something that is supposed to be chilling. It is also difficult because the scenes with the Weird Sister are so famous that it is hard to frighten an audience when they have seen this all before. But through the effective use of lighting, sound effects, staging, (and wonderful acting by Rivka Levin, Tatyana Arrington, and Kathryn Lawson as the Sisters), Watkins manages to take some of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes and still make them truly terrifying. The interesting use of puppets (yes, puppets) as the apparitions in the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene is downright disturbing, which I am sure is exactly what the director was going for.
Sound effects and creative lighting are used throughout the course of the play to place the audience in a world where everything is just slightly off. These effects are most fully utilized with great success during the banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost but they appear throughout the play and help highlight the Macbeth’s collective descent into darkness. Blood is such a central theme in this play that it is impossible for a production of Macbeth to not be bloody, but this production abstains from the tendency of other recent productions of Macbeth to literally bathe their actors in blood throughout the play. Again, this choice to embrace the disturbing nature of the play without having the production descend into the comical is appreciated.
Macbeth is so well-known that it is fashionable, as it is with many other of Shakespeare’s most famous works, to change the setting, time period, or perspective of the play to draw the audience in. While if this is done well it can enhance the viewer’s experience, such stunts can often come across as gimmicky attempts to put fresh paint on a classic structure. However, since the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, performing at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, focuses solely on performances that attempt to capture how a play was originally performed, it must rely on great acting, great directing, and a great text to thrill an audience. This most recent production of Macbeth has all three going for it and is a reminder that Shakespeare in the hands of a great company is all you need to have an enjoyable, and frightening, time.