Wilmington’s newest Shakespeare Company, Dram Tree Shakespeare, opened its inaugural and much-anticipated production of “Macbeth” in the McEachern’s Warehouse on Front Street. One the major works associated with the reign of King James IV of Scotland and I of England, the tale of the tragic Thane remains captivating to audiences four hundred years later. Is it a story of witchcraft? Certainly witch-hunts, in Scotland, especially, were much in the news at the time. Is it a story of treason and treachery? Of personal ambition? Or psychotic love? Different productions (and films) through the centuries have looked at the script to answer these questions. (It will be interesting to see just where the forthcoming Fassbender film falls on the spectrum. Let’s hope it is better than his Jane Eyre.)
But on Front Street patrons enter the roll-up door of the warehouse and immediately sense they are passing into an otherworldly, underworld venue, one where they should have to say a secret password for entry. To the right, Keith Taylor’s stunning faux stained-glass windows with tartan patterns weep rain. Wisps of smoke sneak along the floor and furniture made of wooden spindles greet everyone at the bar. None of this quite prepares anyone for turning the corner: a large sand-pit fighting ring has been constructed, surrounded by wooden bench seats. A sense of the primal is inescapable.
Just as patrons are socializing before the big match, men in kilts storm the ring for battle. Scotland defends their shores from invasion and Macbeth, Thane of Glamis (Gil Johnson), kills the traitor of Cawdor in battle. And so it begins.
Three witches or Wyrd Sisters (Morgana May Bridgers, Tamara Mercer and Ashley Burton) appear to Macbeth and his buddy Banquo (J.R. Rodriguez). In this incarnation, the witches are not just frightening but repulsive and like any train wreck, impossible to wrench from the audience’s gaze. A prediction comes for each of the men: Macbeth with be Thane of Cawdor, then King of Scotland; Banquo will not be king but will father kings. The men are not certain what to make of this until they receive news that Duncan, King of Scotland (Jon Stafford), has awarded Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as gratitude for killing the traitor. It is all the confirmation Banquo and Macbeth need. When their eyes meet at the news, they visibly begin to salivate with greed.
Lady Macbeth (Hannah Elizabeth Smith) is possibly one of the more coveted female roles that the Bard wrote. She is so complex, and can be cast at different ages and with different motivations that the possibilities are endlessly interesting in a way that Juliet is not. Director Christopher Marino and Smith have decided to introduce her the lady full of power and quite malevolence. The goth costume with lace fingerless gloves and black lipstick is the first clue followed by her tone and attitude in interactions with her husband and others.
The relationship between the Lord and Lady is really at the heart of the play. Does she manipulate him to kill the king who sleeps beneath their roof? Or does she just push enough and give excuses enough for him to do something he would have done otherwise? Is he motivated by fear of her—fear of losing her? Lust? Or is it a shared greed recognized between them? For channeling maniacal energy, Smith gets an A+. But she becomes a much more interesting Lady M as the show moves along and her world unravels.
The choice to cast a Lord and Lady with a significant age difference is not a new one: It has been used many times to play up the lust angle and make a nod to obligations of nobility for producing heirs. A younger wife who can still have children was a valuable commodity then. While watching Smith push Johnson to kill the king, I kept thinking, You’re young, you’re beautiful, there are easier ways to manipulate a man into doing what you want than just screaming at him and making him feel inadequate. Once the deed is done, Smith begins a transformation into a very human, very fallible person who must grapple with a guilt she never imagined. That is where Smith’s work in the show captivates.
As for Johnson: I could watch him play this part all day. The clear difference in his normal, public life among men as a solider and a leader is expertly contrasted in his deeply private relationship with his wife, where we see a completely different person. The unspoken that hangs in the air between him and Rodriguez is palpable. It fuels dramatic tension that the audience can almost see written in the air between the two men.
Battle scenes can be difficult to make convincing, especially larger battles. But the beautifully choreographed nature of these fights mingles with a ferocious intensity; it cannot become a foot note to the show. The battles must be a major focus. This man is a solider first and foremost. All the men on the stage are fighting for their lives and the survival of their families. Perhaps that hits home most potently through MacDuff (Nick Battiste) and his dawning realization of what has been wrought.
The show is filled with strong performances. The in-the-round staging, coupled with the minimalist concept, really drives home the visceral nature of the script. The design team has produced a cohesive vision that leaves the audience in no doubt where the show is focused. The whole event almost has a Masonic feel: We have agreed to gather to participate in the ritual performance, at a prearranged location. When it is over, this fiendish moment will have transformed us and those who have brought it to life.