I first came upon Shakespeare's Macbeth in a 9th Grade English class and was instantly enthralled. And why not? It has everything a 15 year old boy would love: Violence, creepy witches, war scenes, sexy ladies who talk smack (screw your courage to the sticky place), and pathos galore. I have read the play many times and seen numerous performances, from Shakespeare in the Park to full blown productions. That is why when I heard that The Guthrie Theater was putting on Macbeth, I had to get tickets. And good ones too. We had 4th row seats located dead center of the thrust stage. I was going to take in Macbeth in all its glory.
Joe Dowling's direction of Macbeth also promised to be lean and mean. No intermission for this Macbeth; just 125 minutes of straight action with the drama ramped up to the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff. However, Dowling starts the play off with an added scene: The Guthrie's production begins with a battle scene full of soldiers repelling down to the stage, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire, and Macbeth dispatching of King Duncan's enemies in ninja-like fashion. We get the idea right away that this Macbeth is no stranger to violence or killing.
The set design was spare with Inverness portrayed as somewhat down on its heels. Cracks in the roof only allow lightning, no sun, and the columns were gritty and dirty. Detritus of the previous battles lay strewn across the stage and the décor appeared to be from the early 20th Century. Costuming didn't give away the play's setting as military men wore uniforms from the perhaps the 1930's, politicians wore suits and ties, while other trappings of medieval times were also present. Dowling uses these various costumes to take us away from placing the play in context in time and to focus on the story in front of us.
Lady Macbeth was sexy in her flowing red hair and gave a visceral performance. She is the driver of Macbeth's actions and when she says she would rip a suckling babe from her breast and bash its head in if that what it takes to be king, you believe her. Macbeth is played as a hunky warrior who is driven by fate, even though he knows his actions will lead to doom. Being told that he will come to no harm by man "woman born" finally gives him the confidence to "be bloody, bold, and resolute" as Lady Macbeth implores.
The famous set pieces such as Banquo's ghost appearing at the dinner are played superbly (my wife gasped at Banquo's appearance) and the butchering of Macduff's family is both creepy and terrifying, especially as the three henchmen approach Macduff's daughter and the lights go down, leaving the awful deed to your own imagination. Finally the final battle between Macduff and Macbeth mirrors the opening fight scene with Macbeth's ultimate demise given a bloody and ruthless presentation.
The Guthrie's Macbeth is intense, bloody, visceral. It's probably one of the most physical performances I have seen. If you are a fan of Shakespeare or Macbeth, it is a must see. If you like good theater or haven't been to the new Guthrie, Macbeth is an excellent way to score some culture cred. Finally Macbeth is a warning to all who claim that God has told them to lead. The Fates are strange things and may have ulterior motives than passing out glory and power.