As several theatres are now streaming performances due to the pandemic, Washington’s Folger Theatre is following suit, but with a difference: The Folger is streaming its older production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” from 2008. “Macbeth” is the shortest but also one of the most somber of Shakespeare’s major tragedies. The valiant nobleman Macbeth, whose fatal flaw of “vaulting ambition which overleaps itself and falls,” is convinced by the prophecy of the “weird sisters” that he shall become king. Lady Macbeth, his wife, additionally prods Macbeth to slay King Duncan, seize the crown, and take the throne. Death, cruelty, and the downfall of the Macbeths are all the natural consequences.
The filmed version of this Folger play has much to recommend it, first off precisely because it does work well as a film, employing different angles and exploiting for camera benefit the stark contrasts in lighting on stage. The production has an energetic beginning as the plot moves forward quickly in a version which is not afraid to cut lines for a more sustained effect. Much blood is visible and, perhaps following the lead of the Roman Polanski film version, the violence in the play is brought visibly to the fore. Also cinematic are sound effects — spooky echoes and atonal music as if from a horror film.
…this performance strikes a wonderful balance between a traditional and modern production, but its greatest virtue is that it comes across on the small screen (either television or computer) as an engrossing film.
A fabulous cast featured, for instance, the outstanding performance of Eric Hissom as the drunken porter. The “knocking at the gate” scene is the one humorous portion of “Macbeth,” and Mr. Hissom has added greatly to this mood with extra lines and a rapport with the audience involving “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” jokes. To its credit, the Folger production also interjects humor in actors’ expressions and intonations into other parts of the play where humor is usually absent.
In his work “Shakespeare’s Maidens and Women,” the poet Heine reports there was a tendency in Germany of his time to see Lady Macbeth in a favorable light, “that the poor lady had been quite misunderstood . . . and many a lovely eye was moved to tears at the sight of that dear sweet [Lady] Macbeth.” We cannot say anything like this happens in this interpretation of Lady Macbeth, yet there is an unusually emphatic presentation in that Lady Macbeth appears nervous, guilty, and unsure in her movements – human, in other words — even before the murder of King Duncan is committed.
Kate Eastwood Norris (whom we saw in the recent season as the very different Mistress Quickly in the Folger’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”) is utterly believable as this Lady Macbeth, in full accord with Macbeth in the person of an enigmatic yet straightforward Ian Merrill Peakes (whom we saw recently as Salieri in the Folger’s “Amadeus”). The scene in which Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to murder King Duncan and seize the crown is very physical between them, both in violence and passion. An especially effective scene which shows the chemistry between the two players is that in which Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth is read alternately by both.
An unusual choice features Andrew Zox, Cleo House, Jr., and Eric Hissom as the masculine and bearded Weird Sisters, perhaps suggested by Shakespeare’s lines uttered by Macbeth’s companion Banquo to the Sisters that “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” One would not think it possible, but the second act was even more intense than the first, featuring Macbeth’s ordered murder of Macduff’s family and the harrowing reception of this news by a highly effective Cody Nickell as Macduff. Superb special effects are used throughout, especially witches on the balcony conjuring potions and presenting visions of the future to Macbeth. The co-direction by Aaron Ponser and Teller (with magic designed by the latter) was outstanding.
At the end of the day, this performance strikes a wonderful balance between a traditional and modern production, but its greatest virtue is that it comes across on the small screen (either television or computer) as an engrossing film. This was thus an excellent choice for the Folger to put online, that the Theatre’s fans may continue to enjoy a quality Shakespeare production in our challenging time.
Watch online for free through July 1, 2020. Click here to stream.