Dagger of the Mind Hot
- by William Shakespeare
- Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
- July 17 - August 3, 2014
"In Macbeth," says director Patrick Mulcahy, "The real battlefield lies within the individual psyche and the fog of war therein is thick and treacherous. If he’s just a bad guy, there is no battle." Mulcahy’s production of the Scottish play for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival picks up on this theme of psychomachia, revealing an interpretation as dark and creative as Macbeth’s own mental state.
The theme of conflict — internal and external — is introduced almost immediately with scenic designer Bob Phillips’ minimalist set, alternating narrow sections of chain-link fence stretching from floor to ceiling. It’s a permeable cage, with more than enough room for characters to weave between the barriers, but it nevertheless suggests a permanent mental division. The main action always takes place well in front of the fences; the liminal area behind them is used for supernatural action or staging representations of normally off-stage moments.
Lisa Zinni’s costumes further illustrate Scotland’s unrest as well as her triumph over a unique challenge: designing individualized outfits for 20+ characters with a color scheme limited to black, more black, and the occasional shade of grey. Instead of descending into an undifferentiable sea of black leather, the restricted palette has the opposite effect, actively highlighting the differences. Macbeth and Banquo’s sleeveless leather coats suggest their grittier approach to battle; Lady Macbeth’s gilded bodice and glittery drape of skirt and veil recall a classical statue of some goddess of war; Rosse’s grey dress uniform and fussy cape further the impression that he would rather be anywhere else than the chaos in which he finds himself embroiled; Fleance’s hipster beanie, ragged sweater, and hoodie fit in with his portrayal as a stargazing dreamer as well as suggesting an underlying familial inclination that explains why Banquo does not also succumb to ambition. Costume changes are equally significant. Upon ascending the throne, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don complementary black and white outfits; at a time when things have never been less black and white, Lady Macbeth’s particolor dress suggests the warring between her and her husband’s better and worse halves, while Macbeth’s ombre sleeves recall that his white shirt has been dipped in something considerably worse than black dye. But red, the lone available color, is used sparingly. It appears only in the bright gradient of the three witches’ wigs, the “spots” of Lady Macbeth’s manicure — and, of course, the smears of blood.
Mulcahy is careful to showcase such arresting images, and though lighting designer Thom Weaver works with a similar minimalism — the sets are never fully lit and likewise use a limited color palette — the results are eminently appropriate for the tone and atmosphere of the production. The production opens with the combatants in the cast behind each chain-link screen, isolated in their own pools of harsh light even as they stand in close ranks; the image is reprised while Malcolm’s army marches towards Dunsinane as Macbeth’s internal conflict intensifies in Act 5. Throughout the play, glimpses of the fence illuminated in scatters of light add an ominous subtext of confinement and hostility. Though many scenes are appropriately lit to resemble some ghoulish nightmare, others eschew the obviously sinister for something more subtle: before it gains a tinge of red after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth’s castle is lit with a warm golden light, deepening the contrast with the shadows clustering on the stage.
The detailed work of Matthew Given’s sound design also contributes to the aesthetic. Besides the uncanny New Age soundtrack, an echoing, distorted reverb haunts the voices of the three witches and renders even ordinary sounds like a knocking at the castle door or the shriek of some night bird truly alarming.
If one reads the production as a reflection of Macbeth’s psyche, Ian Bedford’s performance as the title character certainly conveys a grimly ordered mind nevertheless prone to emotional — or supernatural — disruption. Bedford’s Macbeth begins the play as the perfect soldier, physically imposing and with a certain bluff honesty, and he manages to maintain this façade even after his better qualities have been twisted to dark purposes. He is all reason and affability during his meeting with Banquo’s murderers, held during a wine-tasting that becomes almost a ghoulish parody with the conflict between its appearance and purpose. But during Macbeth’s private moments, and later his all-too-public breaks with reality, his guilt reduces him to tears and terror.
Like Macbeth, the witches first appear as honest citizens: the play begins with the bloody captain (Deanna Gibson) staggering across the stage to to report on the state of the battle before succumbing to her injuries... only to rise from the dead and, with the two field medics (Suzanne O’Donnell and Valerie Berger) attending her, don darkened glasses and chant the play’s opening lines. This cycle repeats throughout the play, and Gibson, O’Donnell, and Berger smoothly transition from the earnest side characters they appear to be — like the porter or Lady Macbeth’s attendant — to the unearthly weird sisters in the closing moments of their scenes.
Susan Riley Stevens’ Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is sharp and fierce from the beginning — but also possesses a certain brittleness even from her first appearance. Her “unsex me here” soliloquy seems as much a plea to herself as to the spirits to overcome the considerable physical anxiety from the course she has already planned out for her husband and herself.
The rest of the cast likewise turn in uniformly strong performances — which, in a way, is part of the production’s one flaw. Each character seems fully cognizant of some aspect of Scotland’s doom and expresses this with an emphatic gravity. But between this and Mulcahy’s languid pacing, any contrasts within the production’s nightmarish reality are few and far between. In this case, there is no light to sharpen the shadows.
However, no matter how sedate the ride, one cannot deny that it is exquisitely planned and executed. The darkness and confusion within Macbeth’s own mind plays out in gorgeous imagery as the treacherous fog of war rolls across the stage. Though Macbeth loses the battle with himself, the PSF’s atmospheric and visually striking production ensures that every step of his mental break is incredibly memorable.
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