Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Electricity: Macbeth at the Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, and Lanise Antoine Shelley in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

For me, the first measure of a Macbeth is the witches. The “weird sisters,” as they call themselves, are can’t-miss characters: They are central to Macbeth’s story, their lines are full of memorable poetry – people who have never seen the Scottish play know “Double, double toil and trouble” – chanting and prophesying. Actresses must love playing these parts. (I’ve occasionally seen them played by men, but it’s not common; and “weird siblings” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

The witches in the Stratford Festival’s Macbeth – Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Lanise Antoine Shelley – are excellent, gruesome and dark and scary, and their reading of Shakespeare’s macabre verses is outstanding. The witch-scene staging, by the festival’s Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino, is first-rate. The cauldron scene, in particular, is easily the best I’ve seen, and the witches’ disappearance at the end of it is an actual coup de théâtre. Macbeth’s “Where are they? Gone?” has never been so apropos.

But the show is Macbeth, of course, not Weird Sisters (though I rather like that title). And I’m pleased to report that Ian Lake and Krystin Pellerin (Republic of Doyle) are excellent, if perhaps a bit young, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. (I usually imagine them more middle-aged, when festering ambition overcomes common sense, and common decency.) But that’s a niggle. In any case, the sexual chemistry between Lake and Pellerin, abetted of course by their youth, is almost shocking. On opening night, women in the audience gasped when Lake took off his shirt, and when Pellerin washes him, you can practically see electricity sparking between them. I’m not so sure many older actors could pull that off.

Lake’s agonizing over whether to go ahead with the bloody murder – the “Is this a dagger I see before me” scene – is finely wrought and convincing, and his exchange with Pellerin after he has “done the deed” is beautifully paced and credible – she is cool and in charge, he is shaken but determined.

Ian Lake and Krystin Pellerin as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. (Photo: Don Dixon)

In fact, as in most productions at the Stratford Festival, this Macbeth is well cast from top to bottom. Scott Wentworth’s Banquo is a steady presence, Macbeth’s ally at the beginning, when they are both general’s in Duncan’s army. They are together when Macbeth first meets the witches, but the prophecy that Banquo’s descendants will sit on the throne turns Macbeth against him, and Banquo is increasingly suspicious after the murder of the king. His own death, at the hands of assassins hired by Macbeth, is appalling, and his appearance as a ghost during a feast of Macbeth’s followers, which leaves Macbeth shattered, is one of the show’s high dramatic points.

Macbeth’s hired killers (Peter Hutt and Jessica B. Hill) are grim and competent, going about their business with dispatch. After Banquo’s murder, Macbeth sets them on Macduff’s wife and son (Sarah Afful and Oliver Neudorf). That scene is perhaps the most shocking in a play full of shocking moments, set up by a droll bit of dialogue between Lady Macduff and her son, and ending on a horrifying, stunning note. (A shout-out to young Oliver Neudorf, who speaks the son’s witty lines with aplomb and has considerable stage presence.)

Through it all, of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are being driven mad by the differences between their expectations and crushing reality. Their interlinked disintegrations are compellingly portrayed by Lake and Pellerin. All in all, this Macbeth, like last season’s Hamlet starring Jonathan Goad, may be part of an announcement that the next generation of Stratford actors is ready to move into leading roles.

And considering the thoughtful, imaginative staging and design of his last several productions, it may also signal Antoni Cimolino’s arrival in the first rank of Shakespearean theatre directors. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.

Performances of Macbeth at the Stratford Festival's Festival Theatre will run until November 5.

Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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