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Murky Macbeth Elicits Standing Ovation at Canada's Stratford Festival

by Jim Volz. Written on 2016-08-23. Published in 2017 Issue 1.

For the production Macbeth (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)

It was a gloriously murky, shadowy, and dusky eleventh-century setting for Macbeth, and Canada’s Stratford Festival designer Julie Fox’s compact, complex set almost stole the show. Fortunately, Director Antoni Cimolino knew how to take full advantage of his cast and entire design team. He commanded an always expected, seldom fulfilled, vibrant, streamlined story of usurpation, guilt, madness, and revenge that provoked a quick standing ovation and audience cheers in the Festival Theater.

It was a clear telling of Duncan’s murder, the Macbeths’ plotting, Macduff’s revenge, and the country’s triumph over evil tyranny. But it was not an unblemished production despite the exquisite scene transitions, startling special effects, and chilling sound designs by Composer Steven Page and Designer Thomas Ryder Payne.

From the very beginning of the show, there was a much too relaxed sense of vocal energy and physical dynamism that one would expect from a recently battle-tested, adrenaline-charged Macbeth and Banquo. The three witches (eerily and forcefully rendered by Brigit Wilson, Lanise Antoine Shelley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings), did their part to set the two warriors on their prophetic path of doom, but neither Macbeth or Banquo seemed to seize the startling predictions of great fortune with the gravity and/or exhilaration that one might suspect (even when the Thane of Cawdor prophesy was almost instantly fulfilled). Allowing for various directorial or actor interpretations, this was just one example of a number of moments in the show where a key actor’s vocal depth, dynamics, tone, or muted force slowed the wild, reckless, and maddening actions of the play. In other moments in the expansive 1800-seat Festival Theater, characters turned upstage or put their faces to the stage floor without increasing volume (often making their lines or speeches indecipherable).

Still, the individual crafting of scenes was stellar. The slaying of Macduff’s family was inspired in its simplicity and horror, as was the ambush of Banquo and the escape of Fleance. The director and actors took their time with the more thoughtful scenes involving the plotting of the Macbeths, the revelation of the slaughter of Banquo’s family, and Malcolm’s transformation from exiled suspect to ruler (solidly played by Antoine Yared). This set the stage for the rapid-fire pace of the march of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane, and the final, well-lit, cut-and-chase denouement of the “invincible” Macbeth.

Ian Lake’s Macbeth was solid but often lacking the fire and in-the-moment sense of surprise or awe that communing with the supernatural usually inspires. Krystin Pellerin’s Lady Macbeth captured the energy but lacked the nuance that connected Macbeth’s initial missive with her intricate and abrupt turn to the dark side. Michael Blake’s Macduff was earthy and fierce, and Sara Afful’s Lady Macduff was playful and heartbreaking in the wonderfully staged murderous ambush. Scott Wentworth’s Banquo was honest and on target and his wandering in and out of the banquet scene was accomplished with clarity and convincing authority.

This was a strong company and a lavish production dedicated to longtime Stratford actor and director, Brian Bedford. Michael Walton’s lighting design was sinister and bold, Composer Page and Sound Designer Payne created splendid aural surroundings for the play’s most shocking moments, and Fight Director John Stead and Movement Director Heidi Strauss kept the pacing frenetic and fraught with peril when called on. The rousing final confrontation fight between Macbeth (Lake) and Macduff (Blake) was handled with confidence.