Sock ‘n’ Buskin’s season opener of Macbeth is something of a mixed bag. With performances by some promising newcomers and a troubled relationship with a bold directorial choice, this student production has lots of ambition but lacks real follow through.
Macbeth is certainly an alluring programming choice for a few reasons, not least of which is its constant audience familiarity due to its frequency of production: Bear & Co. had an outdoor-turned-indoor production of the Scottish Play at the Gladstone this past September; we got messy with Macbeth Muet at last year’s Undercurrents festival; Weird: The Witches of Macbeth entranced audiences with their high-flying antics at the 2015 Fringe; and Sock ‘n’ Buskin themselves produced this play only 5 years ago, just to give you some idea. That the play is required reading in Ontario high schools (my high school in Barrie gave Grade 11 English teachers the choice between Macbeth and Othello, but the Scottish play was usually the more popular option) helps to ensure that this is one of the few classical plays with which most people have some kind of familiar knowledge.
In developing a plan of attack for this production, director Sarah Haley has chosen to reset the play from 11th century Scotland (or early 17th century England, when it was written and first performed) to a geographically ambiguous 1950s setting, “a conscious decision to show female oppression and agency” (Director’s Note, Show Program). At first this seems like an unusual choice – wouldn’t Taming of the Shrew or The Tempest be more suitable for a feminist take? Like most Shakespearean tragedies, the casting breakdown for Macbeth is pretty dude-heavy, with the only female characters being the mysterious witches, the bloodthirsty and later remorseful Lady Macbeth, and Lady Macduff (who mostly serves as a sympathetic foil for Lady Macbeth for one scene before being brutally murdered). Haley has, however, taken this into account by gender-swapping some of the written-as-male roles, notably King Duncan and Banquo’s son Fleance- the king Macbeth usurps and the source of a future royal lineage, respectively, the director’s choice to recast these roles reinforce each other nicely. This also helps to even out the balance of female and male performers in the cast (as much a practical concern as an artistic one).
The choice that is less convincing is the characterization of the witches, particularly as the characters of Ladies Macbeth and Macduff are pretty inflexible the way they’re written. The original text implies that the witches are ugly, spiteful hags, though a popular choice is to re-envision them as comely young seductresses. Haley ignores the false old and ugly/young and hot dichotomy by casting the witches as… well… weird. Adorned with long bridal veils, the performers exaggerate their upper body movements, making the witches come across (from what I can tell) as an especially venomous parody of what was considered tastefully feminine in the mid-20th century. It’s not made super clear that this is what Haley was going for, but at the very least the witches do come across as ‘otherworldly’ to the god-fearing characters of Macbeth.
The strongest acting in the show, suitably, comes from Sheldon Paul and Meaghan Brackenbury as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Paul executes soliloquies very well, speaking directly to the audience and allowing his thought process to develop over the course of his speeches, though his soliloquies near the end, as a reviled and mad despot, are delivered in much the same manner as they are at the beginning when Macbeth is still a sane, well-liked, and unambitious lord. Curiously Macbeth wears a bowler hat at a jaunty angle for almost the entire performance (even when he doesn’t wear it, it’s within reach), though a crown may have been a better choice (particularly since there’s one on the poster, though to be fair Duncan doesn’t wear one either).
Brackenbury comes in strong with a good grasp of the Shakespearean verse and a hard drive towards Lady M’s goal of murdering the king and getting away with it. Like Paul, Brackenbury is at times a little one-note, but the look of concern on her face as Macbeth coyly hints at his plot to murder Banquo adds some depth to her character. Some of the female ensemble members have promise too, particularly Amal Azman who has a slow and serious gravitas as Queen Duncan.
The production as a whole starts out pretty by-the-book, though it gets less and less so as it nears the end. The scenes around the climactic battle are reset onto the battlefield, with the fighting itself being more or less staged as a rumble. There’s some issues with stage weaponry (Macbeth shoots Young Siward point-blank with a pistol before the battle in which no firearms are used). The 1950s angle won me over by the end of the performance, though in terms of costume and mannerism this theme is somewhat unevenly applied. A final touch that works quite nicely: the witches appear at the end, walking around the bodies on the battlefield, to repeat the lines “fair is foul and foul is fair…” suggesting that the entire play is spurred by the witches amusing themselves with human misery and suffering. It’s an unpalatable take on female agency to be sure, but it fits the characters.
Additionally, the performance was preceded by a 10-minute scene, The True Author of the Plays Formerly Attributed to Mister William Shakespeare Revealed to the World for the First Time by Miss Delia Bacon, and the title describes the basic premise pretty well. Delia Bacon was a descendent of Sir Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and Delia was among the first to challenge Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays (preferring, of course, to believe that her own ancestor wrote them). The scene is set up as Delia Bacon gives a lecture to a sceptical audience (us) with her most notable critic, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, also somewhere in the crowd. Throughout her train wreck of a lecture Delia reveals herself to be a poor logician, excessively narcissistic toward her own ancestor, and jealously in love with Hawthorne. As Delia, Caitlin Hart manages her outbursts well although the transition from moments of outrage to easing back into calm “logic” might be a little more clearly defined. The decision to set Macbeth in the 1950s seems to have transferred over here as well though it makes less sense here, particularly as 19th century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne is supposed to be in the room. The decision to program a related short play before the main show is an interesting one that hopefully Sock ‘n’ Buskin will keep, particularly if they decide to start doing original scripts (as it is, this production of True Author… is the Canadian premiere, according to the preshow announcement).
This production of Macbeth has its ups and downs, but if you’re familiar with the story (and many are) then this production does present a topical take on a classic that will make you think about alternative takes on other, less intuitively feminist classic texts.
By William Shakespeare
A Sock ‘n’ Buskin production
At Kailash Mital Theatre (in Southam Hall), Carleton University
November 24-26 and December 1-3 at 7pm
Directed by Sarah Haley
Stage Management by Heather Botham
Assistant Stage Manager: Meg Sutton
Lighting Design: Jared Black
Scenic Design: Christian Giansante
Costume Design: Karlena Koot
Fight Director: Will Lafrance
Starring, in alphabetical order: Amal Azman, Casey Beynon, Meaghan Brackenbury, Brier Cook, Kosta Diochnos, Letycia Henriques, Noah Hollis, Mitchell Kedrosky, Andrew Kellie, Will Lafrance, Tamara LaPlante, Kevin MacDonald, Molly McGuire, Matthew Okum, Sheldon Paul, Jasmine Stamos, Mary Sword, Matthew Venner, Alex Wilson