Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Macbeth" at the Guthrie

I saw the Guthrie Theater's production of "Macbeth" a few weeks ago, and it was quite impressive. I've read "Macbeth" before, I think in both high school and college, but for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. The Guthrie chose to present it without an intermission, which made for an intense experience. With a running time of two hours, it definitely makes sense, because the play is so compact and thrilling, but it's so bloody that the tension level just goes up and up until finally, mercifully, the play is over.

"Macbeth" is quite a fascinating play. Does Macbeth have free will over what happens, or is he doomed by the witches' prophecy that he will become king? There's no easy answer to this question. Macbeth could simply wait and see if somehow he will become king without killing Duncan, the current king. Macbeth even alludes to this, saying, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir." (Act 1, Scene 3) But then he and Lady Macbeth decide to go ahead with their evil plan and slay Duncan as he sleeps in their castle. It could be that the witches merely plant the idea of becoming king in Macbeth's head, that they tap into the latent ambition that is already inside of him. Reading the introduction to my handy Bantam Classics edition of "Macbeth," editors David Bevington and David Scott Kastan say something similar. Bevington and Kastan remind us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have discussed killing Duncan before, thus "the witches appear after the thought, not before." Furthermore, "Elizabethans would probably understand that evil spirits such as witches appear when summoned, whether by our conscious or unconscious minds." According to this reading, Macbeth's murderous thoughts summon up agents of evil, which in turn strengthen his ambition to become king, whatever the costs. And since the witches say that Macbeth is to be king, who is he to argue with them?

In a way, "Macbeth" reminds me of "Oedipus Rex." Both characters are faced with a prophecy. The prophecy that Oedipus hears is that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus's reaction is to run as far away from the prophecy as he can, but he unwittingly fulfills it. Macbeth, on the other hand, runs as fast as he can towards the prophecy that he will be king, and, of course, fulfills it. The problem is that both men do not know how to interpret the prophecies. After Macbeth is king, he is told by the witches that he cannot be killed by a man "of woman born." Macbeth then becomes full of hubris, blind to the fact that there might be a loophole. (The loophole is Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped.") Does hearing the prophecy change Macbeth's actions, or would he have acted in the same way even if he didn't know of the prophecy? Perhaps the prophecies just bring to the surface the evil that lurks under Macbeth's surface.

The Guthrie's production was quite good, with a number of striking visual tableaux that seemed very cinematic to me. The blood on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's hands in the murder scene was disturbing, it made me nearly sick to my stomach. It made the murders seem much more real. The acting was fine, with a particularly good performance from Michelle O'Neill as Lady Macbeth. Erik Heger was good as Macbeth, but he didn't bring a lot of charm or personality to the role. There is a wonderful quote from a poem, "The Cup," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that was included in the program:

"I heard a saying in Egypt, that ambition

Is like the sea wave, which the more you drink,

The more you thirst-yea-drink too much, as men

Have done on rafts of wreck-it drives you mad."

What fitting lines for this strange and terrifying play.

1 comment:

Uncle E said...

When I was living in eastern Canada there was a town called Stratford (halfway between Toronto and London) that was famous for it's Shakespeare festivals. Even had an Avon river (more like a creek, really). Boy do I miss it, and Macbeth was by far my favorite.