Macbeth at The Guthrie Theater

Michelle O'Neill (Lady Macbeth) and Erik Heger (Macbeth) start in Shakespeare's MACBETH. Photo by Michal Daniel.

As my companion pointed out, one of the enduring pleasures of Macbeth (on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Stage, through April 3, guthrietheater.org) is that it’s so much fun. A tragedy to be sure, and stern academicians will parse the deep meaning of the blood imagery, the rich broken iambic of the language, the complex clashing ambitions of the principals. All valid, but let’s not forget that Shakespeare was, essentially, devising an entertainment. The play features gore-fouled daggers, exuberant sword-fights, the weïrd (the umlaut is the Guthrie’s) witches and, of course, the homicidal bedroom murmurings of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth (Erik Heger and Michelle O’Neill), arguably the creepiest couple in the canon.

Director Joe Dowling does fun beautifully. The G’s website warns us of “graphic violence” and here the production doesn’t stint, with a wild opening combat, the bizarre witches, fun-loving assassins (they enjoy slicing throats a bit too much), a gorgeously staged final fight. The play moves quickly, at a bladder-busting intermissionless two hours. Set/costumes designer Monica Frawley creates a dusty broken down ballroom, filled with concrete junk, and everything takes place in this backdrop. With the able assistance of lighting designer Frances Aronson, composer Adam Wernick and sound designer Scott W. Edwards, she creates a perfect environment for this gorgeously bloody show.

The production slights somewhat the trembling and potent eroticism of the initial interplay between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Dowling does this perhaps in the interest of moving things briskly. However, as a result, the murder of Duncan isn’t quite as powerful, or as much fun, as it might otherwise be. Still, it plays reasonably well and once Duncan is dispatche the play takes off. Heger’s brittle, hallucinating Macbeth works – his descent into madness is simultaneously frightening and comic. The banquet scene, with Banquo’s ghost (how did they sneak him in?) is great. Ditto O’Neill’s “Out, damn spot” speech; I’ve never seen this done better.

The famous “Burnam Wood” scene is given a masterful staging, with demonic children rising up out the smoking earth, the three witches bunched together in the throes of bizarre visions, Macbeth writhing with the power of it all. Yum.

As is always the case at the Guthrie, the acting is first rate. Space limitations keep me from waxing enthusiastic about everyone; still, I have to single out for praise Bill McCallum‘s lovely understated Banquo. And, of course, the sisters (Barbara Byrne, Isabell Monk O’Connor and Suzanne Warmenen) are terrific.

It’s a great play, one of Shakespeare’s most accessible, and this staging, if not absolutely perfect, is very good.

Recommended.

Macbeth runs through April 3rd.  Tickets and more information available at guthrietheater.org.

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