Last week, the time came once more for a biannual (sort-of) tradition—attending another performance of Corban’s Theatre Arts program. The play this fall?
A post-apocalyptic rendition of Macbeth. Time-travelers instead of witches. Boarded-up houses, instead of grim castles. Air raid sirens instead of bells ringing.
In some respects, the most important question ought to be how Shakespeare comes out as a futuristic story, where—according to the program notes—a country has fallen low, reduced to scavenging among the ruins of past civilization.
Beyond just the setting, the production had action, of course, and promised plenty of weapons and violence as well:
That promise was well fulfilled.
Macbeth opened and closed on a battlefield. In the first, the three gaudy travelers burst through their portal in a chaos of lights and noise, freezing the battle below them and hand-picking Macbeth for their plots. Once they vanished, the battle resumed, while Macbeth and Banquo drove off the rebel armies. In the last battle, Macbeth the usurper slowly realized that he cannot escape the doom he has drawn down on himself.
The two battles effectively bookended a story reeking from beginning to end with mayhem, treachery, and murder.
More importantly, though, Director Tammy McGinnis and Assistant Director Rachel Ost framed the play as the story of choices, from Macbeth’s decisions ending in greed and madness to Banquo and Macduff’s choice of sacrifice and honor.
The production had, perhaps, some weaknesses—only a couple actors managed to articulate the Elizabethan dialogue consistently. Some of the scenes felt overwrought and ironic that should have felt touching. Some of the violence felt threatening, while other scenes passed as stage violence, making it hard either to chuckle or cringe.
At the same time, the cast shone—Duncan (Ralph Waldo Emerson III) ruled as a most excellent, gracious king before his untimely death. Lady Macbeth (Claire Clubb) argued persuasively for Macbeth to pursue blood with a vengeance and tried to convince herself of the same, arguing that she could have killed the king herself, had “he not resembled / My father as he slept.”
The loyal captain Macduff (Adam Fields) excelled in bombast as he argued for Duncan’s son, the lawful king to reclaim his inheritance—until news came of his own heart-breaking tragedy.
Macbeth’s other foil Banquo (Krystal Kuehn), provided a brief and effective balance to Macbeth’s rash decisions, but was mostly memorable for her dramatic and ghastly reappearance postmortem. (Yes, Banquo was played as a woman, as was Macduff’s ‘son’ and a number of minor characters. McGinnis and Ost made the changes to accommodate their available cast.)
Macbeth (Martin Fogarty), on the other hand, moved from puzzled to curious, trying to interpret the travelers’ message. When proof came that their first promise was true—and that he might hope to become king—Macbeth’s confidence became expectation, then doubt, irresolution, and finally action, falling swiftly to passionate remorse. While I had heard before the defiant “Wake Duncan with thy knocking!” Macbeth gave it a tragic pathos when he added almost wistfully, “I would thou couldst.”
Ultimately, the play ended as a solid, college production of Shakespeare—well done, but still difficult to follow in places because, well, Shakespeare is difficult. While his plays are certainly meant to be watched and not read, their language is nearly foreign to us. We are not used to listening to turn-of-the-17th-century idioms any more than we are used to the humor and attitudes of Shakespeare’s characters.
And yet, we are used to them, because they are universal characters, as well as universal motives and emotions. It may be shocking—and amusing—to listen while Macbeth calls out:
Ring the alarum-bell. Murder and treason!
As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites,
To countenance this horror! Ring the bell.”
particularly when the answering alarm bell rings forth as an air-raid siren. Renaissance and post-apocalyptic do mix strangely at times.
It is not shocking, however—or even surprising—to watch a loyal man driven to break his loyalty for greed or ambition. Macbeth's madness reminds us how easily evil can look like sanity.