Review by K.C. Novak
The pre-show introduction from director Joe Hinks warns the audience that Standing Room Only (SRO) Theatre’s production of The Tragedy of Macbeth will be a “roller coaster ride” and we should keep arms and legs inside our seats at all times.
Shakespearean tragedies, and certainly the profoundly grim Macbeth, are a thundering ride where the engine is tragic desire and the tracks are the precisely crafted verse. And with Macbeth, that engine is shamelessly gassed up with an insatiable need for power.
It is here where SRO both succeeds and struggles. The cast, the ambitious sound design and athletic staging create a mighty engine of propulsive need, but one which soon overheats from a lack of focus: of place, of time, and most sorrowfully, of language.
Hinks writes in his director’s notes: “Though purposefully ambiguous, there is no drastic transplant of time or space that drastically alters the play’s meaning.” He asserts that this non-decision allows for a deeper consideration of Macbeth’s themes. Hinks stands by his ambiguity: “Do you re-invent the wheel or stick to the original context? I decided to be on the fence.”
The production thrives when its internal logic is made clear. The use of unintrusive music and soundscapes (designed by Sarah Mabberly and Sean Anthony) during pivotal scenes provides rich emotional texture. Dynamic blocking by Hinks, juxtaposing characters through spatial distance and levels makes good use of SRO’s corridor stage, and evocative simple set design (by Tracy-Lynn Chernaske). Through these thoughtful technical considerations, the dark-spirited mood remains consistent.
However, Hinks’ view from the fence creates an incoherency of choices: The long-form stage combat sequences and (many) stage deaths are accomplished by dagger and fake blood; Lady Macduff pushes an empty stroller you could buy from Target; the three witches look as if styled by pirates; reports and letters are printed on computer paper; greetings are met with historically-muddled forearm grips; the end of the play is an odd meditation in how to realistically handle a very unreal-looking severed head.
Suppressed laughter came from a neighbour, and I couldn’t blame her. Comedy is all in the timing, and, if presented with every time at once, logic will hiccup in a way which is unpleasant to drama. The use of recorded speeches by JFK, Winston Churchill, Mao Tse-Tung and Hitler to open acts also added to the confusion, were often inaudible, slowed the play down, and by all means could be cut.
The most frustrating point of ambiguity arrives between Macbeth’s two leads. J-C Roy’s Macbeth is framed as a blundering tragic figure, a victim of fate, someone who never has to sink down into the black depths of his reality. Roy’s performance remains in his extremities; his forehead scrunching, his thumbs twiddling and his uncertain shuffles create a contemporary neurotic figure who can only gesture at what his life has cost him without ever having to show the debt. It feels too easy. While Hinks’ direction articulates the intellectual arc of Macbeth’s journey from “hero to despotic leader,” we never get the guts of seeing a man lose himself to his own lust for power.
And this Macbeth is no match for Keara Barnes’ Lady Macbeth. From the moment she enters in a becoming, funereal black dress, it is clear who is at the wheel. Barnes’ beautiful command of voice, language and body—and her skilled orchestration of these essential points of expression—made me consider the possibility that the entire world of the play was a nightmare Lady M was conjuring, the dark engine made of her own heart birthing witches and blood-plots. The duet scenes between Roy and Barnes create an unassailable divide between these character’s worlds where Macbeth wears his doom lightly and his wife can only speak the language of destruction.
Two clarifying stage presences are those of Christine Reinfort’s pointed Witch and Lady Macduff as well as Devon Oakander’s Malcom. Reinfort’s physical life demands attention even without dialogue thanks to her laser focus. The scenes with Oakander’s gentle Malcom bring a much needed relief from the over revving of rage much of the production is met by.
Hopefully the show will harness its own power and use each performance to risk more of itself. There is no doubt that the ensemble’s energy will fill each night from front to back with the sound and fury displayed on opening night. The real opportunity left is to fuse that power to the exactness of Shakespeare’s language; to not be seduced by the showmanship of swells of emotion and fake blood, but to remember that in the end, it’s the delicate, sharp point of the dagger that does the deed.
The Tragedy of Macbeth plays at the Cambrian Hall November 6-8, 13-15.
K.C. Novak is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Theatre at UBC.