- Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Through this richly “collaborat[ive]” production of Macbeth, director Robert Richmond, the cast, the Folger Consort, and scholars including Amanda Winkler, Richard Schoch, and Claude Fretz have accomplished an impressive feat—bringing a Restoration adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies to the stage and, moreover, demonstrating that Restoration revisions of Shakespeare are extremely fun and fascinating in performance (“Performing Restoration Shakespeare,” 7). This limited-release production is the “culmination of a. . . . partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust . . . bring[ing] together scholars and practitioners in theater and music to investigate how and why Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare succeeded in performance in their own time . . . and how and why they can succeed in performance today” (“Performing Restoration Shakespeare,” 7). To this end, this staging of Davenant’s Macbeth plays upon the combination of novelty and diversity of spectacle that so appealed to Restoration audiences, creating a playgoing experience that is evocative of the one experienced by Samuel Pepys, who after seeing the same play in 1667, recorded it to be “a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy; which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable” (“Performing Restoration Shakespeare,” 6). The similar combination of “deep tragedy,” visual interest, and musical “divertisement” in this new production—including the comic fun and operatic virtuosity of the witches and the beauty of the music and stage effects—is shown not to detract from the tragedy of the play but to further its interpretive range and richness. What results is a Macbeth that is both warmly familiar and wonderfully novel and strange.
The metatheatrical and intermedia approach to this production dispenses with the iconicity that is often expected when producing one of the most popular tragedies in English. The Macbeths, played by Ian Merrill Peakes and Kate Eastwood Norris, return to their roles from an acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Folger Theatre several years earlier, which heightens the sense that performance (here, but also in general) is intended to be interpretive and referential more than definitive or iconic. To this end, a frame is added to Davenant’s text, and this Macbeth is a play within a play—a performance put on by inmates in Bedlam. This frame eases the audience into this encounter with a version of Macbeth that is rather different from the ones they are familiar with and lays the interpretive groundwork for enjoying the play for these differences, especially its distinctly Restoration-era artifice and variety. What is produced is an exciting combination of the familiar and unexpected that encourages playgoers to notice and enjoy the moments where the plays diverge.
The Bedlam framing plot renders the play an ambivalent but powerful examination of the legitimacy of power. The warden stages the performance and has sadistic guards and inmates of the asylum who are clearly unhinged and unwell play the characters while he plays King Duncan. Visually, Duncan’s costly Restoration costume (compared to the inmates’ sullied ones), rakish swagger, and elaborate wig (which looks like an auburn version [End Page 138] of Charles II’s black curls) reference legitimate kingship while also pointing to its artifice, bombast, and (through the Bedlam frame), its underlying violence. This connection of violence with the maintenance of power (including power that is lawfully sanctioned) is picked up throughout the production, blurring the action of Macbeth proper with the play-within-a-play context. Inmates acting in the play continue to be manhandled by the guards while performing. Most unsettlingly, in the background of some key parts of the tragedy—such as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discussing the murder—inmates are tortured in a recessive section behind the main stage that resembles a jail cell with bars. The warden/King Duncan presides over these torture sessions, making it especially understandable when the warden is actually slain and real bedlam breaks loose.
The murder of Duncan occurs behind a screen made...