For the Hedgerow Theatre’s ninetieth anniversary, it was decided that their “fall thriller” slot would be filled by Macbeth. Director Don Hodge delivers with a quickly-paced and supernatural production – one that relies on the play itself to elicit some seasonal creepiness.
The setting is moved to the Great War, at least nominally. While Cathie Miglionico’s costume design makes some nods to that era, the result is more impressionistic than period. She does have a few nice touches: tartans are used sparingly but effectively for royalty, while the trailing cloaks and gas masks that completely obscure the weird sisters are genuinely creepy. Lady Macbeth’s black mourning gown introduces some hints to her troubled state of mind, and the matching red dressing gowns donned by the leading couple after their first murder are a nice moment of almost black comedy. However, overall the costumes come off as general approximations of the time’s uniforms, suits, and gowns, rather than an attempt to exploit the attributes of more specifically Edwardian dress.
Meanwhile, Zoran Kovcic’s scenic design is not so much in tune with the production’s setting as it is with its atmosphere. The gloomy wooden staircases that mainly stand in for Macbeth’s castle could come from any era, though in combination with the theater’s rough stone walls, they evoke a distinct “haunted abandoned cabin in the woods” aesthetic which enhances the mood of the production.
Hodge’s failure to fully explore his chosen setting is frustrating, especially when the few aspects he does choose to highlight are so effective. The witches’ gas masks render them inhumanly uncanny, and replacing more typical thunder and night bird sound effects with the roar of planes and scream of missiles grounds the horror in real world concerns in addition to more mystical ones. This failure could almost be ignored in favor of the more prominent role of the supernatural in the story, but for the play’s slightly disappointing conclusion: after Malcolm promises to restore order to Scotland, the witches pop up from their hiding places as red lights flood the stage. It’s the dramatic equivalent of a pounding scare chord, something of a letdown from the production’s previous reliance on strong performances and nicely subtle lighting and sound effects to create its horror. Furthermore, given that Andrew Parcell’s Malcolm thus far has been guilty of nothing more than having an ill-timed sense of humor, it’s difficult to anchor a believable sense of foreboding on such an affable character (especially when the obvious parallels to the failure in leadership that led to World War I’s bloody sequel are not exploited).
The actors too only pay a passing nod to the setting, making use of the early twentieth century’s fascination with spiritualism while ignoring the heady combination of jingoism and shellshock that powered the War to End All Wars. However, their performances do connect on a more personal level that brings some intriguing nuances to the production. Jared Reed, though unconvincing as a general who “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorise another Golgotha,” is excellent as a man who allows his ambition rein as a way to comfort his beloved wife and seek earthly power in recompense for their personal tragedies. These are illuminated by Jennifer Summerfield, whose almost fragile but still-compelling Lady Macbeth has very clearly suffered the death of a child, and both she and Reed show the couple’s heartbreaking love as they try to recover from the loss. The two also excel at showing the Macbeths’ sense of entitlement to the position promised them, and how their relationship gives them the strength for the necessary ruthlessness to attain it. However, their love is ultimately no match for the guilt their actions provoke, and Reed and Summerfield highlight the tragic romance that accompanies their tragic ambition: after Lady Macbeth is driven to suicide, Macbeth offers Macduff no resistance in their final confrontation, refusing to yield but also refusing to go on without his wife.
The paranormal aspects of the production are some of its strongest elements, with a firm basis in several of the cast’s performances. David Blatt plays Seyton, now a composite of the Sergeant, the Porter, the Third Murderer, and various servants, and who has never been more appropriately named. Resurrected by the witches at the beginning of the play, Seyton appears as an agent of chaos, alternating between helpfully murdering Banquo and Lady Macduff, not murdering Fleance and Macduff’s infant child, telling evil knock-knock jokes, and giving Macbeth sardonically judging looks. The role appears to be a combination of both Jeeves and the butler who committed the crime in the stereotypical whoddunnit, and Blatt strikes an excellent balance between extremely dry humor and chilling blandness, keeping the character’s motives obscure but ominous throughout the production. However, the play’s iconic three witches – portrayed by Susan Wefel, Rebecca Jane Cureton, and Lily Dwoskin – are unambiguously sinister. Eschewing a more typical cackling for unearthly shrieks, the three actresses imbue the famous lines of their spells with an unnervingly Satanic bent, and perfectly mirror each other in keening, contorted performances that are genuinely frightening.
Hodges’ adaptation of the text smoothly combines characters and scenes for an original spin that is nevertheless firmly based on Shakespeare’s own intentions. With the efforts of a talented cast and crew, the result is a tight, paranormal thriller, both highly appropriate for the season and an exciting perspective on a classic play.