Aquila Theatre’s touring company revisited McCain Auditorium this past Friday, this time to present their version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The performance was well received by an attentive downstairs-only crowd, and the positive reception was certainly justified, given that Aquila got so much so right.
Most importantly, they put Shakespeare’s words front and center, let them carry the dramatic load largely free from the distracting influences of fancy sets and frilly costumes. Which is to say they played it by Shakespeare’s own rules, gave his tale the open, uncluttered space he envisioned it happening in.
Instead of any solid battlement, courtyard, hall or passage all was artfully defined by a highly sophisticated program of precision lighting and a steady, swirling mist that shrouded every scene in prophetic gray. Again, by keeping its “scenery” abstract, Aquila made the script’s language all the more palpable.
With so speech- and movement-friendly a setting, all we needed to complete the picture was a cast up to making the right moves and mouthing all those wonderfully memorable lines for us. But doing Shakespeare, Macbeth in particular, is far from a cakewalk, even for talented professionals, as this show proved.
Dramatic action skillfully blocked looks and feels so natural we’re unaware of the contrivance behind it. A bare stage rivets our eyes on the actors, and if their action consists mostly of lengthy speeches, much creativity is required to avoid the clumpiness of static tableaux. When fixed poses draw attention to their stiffness, as they did in several scenes, it’s the words that suffer, and that’s a vital loss.
Getting just the right tone is crucial to making Macbeth work. The music of its poetic score has to be pitch perfect to enable that dark fatality announced in the opening chant to work its relentless will on all and sundry. It’s a grim, chilling journey that, unlike Shakespeare’s earlier (and in many respects similar) go at depicting an anti-hero, Richard III, has no stichomythic wit and little humor of any sort to relieve the gloom. Only the “knocking at the gate” scene offers any laughs, and it ends up serving to heighten the horror.
But as always, the text itself helps guide would-be interpreters with abundant clues. Its referential code is all about deceit, disease, and futility. Over and over we learn that nothing is as it seems. Fair is foul and foul is fair, say the witches. A drunken porter rails about equivocation. A dagger floats in the air. Life’s but a walking shadow. For better and for worse, in the world of Macbeth all are deluded, misguided, doomed.
So like it or not, the mood of the piece is one of stoic resignation, its tone icy with choked feeling. Venting emotion in explosive tantrums or effusive weeping is inimical to the nature of its characters, and it doesn’t make them any more acceptable or relevant to today’s audiences to force their psyches into modern templates. In this play more than in most, it’s certainly true that more is less and less is more.
It may have been partly a matter of dead spots on McCain’s stage, but some Aquilans sometimes lacked the vocal push and focus necessary to articulate and project their lines effectively, again diminishing the verbal impact of a dramatic masterpiece.
Still, warts and all, it was a worthwhile performance. Its limitations didn’t keep it from reminding us yet again that Shakespeare reveals human character with a deftness unequalled by any other playwright.