Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Macbeth

Philippa Domville and Hugh Thompson (phot by David Hou)

Canadian Stage Takes Summer by Storm with Macbeth
this Macbeth is a bull who charges forward and destroys everything in his wake
joel fishbane

Shakespeare has come to Toronto and, thanks to the folk at the Canadian Stage Company, he’s hit the park running. CanStage has launched its 31rst season of Shakespeare in High Park with a sharp and visually arresting production of Macbeth that works surprisingly well under the stars: the sombre mood of the setting sun perfectly fits the darker tones of the play, with shadows creeping across the stage almost as if working under orders from director Ker Wells.

Wells and Company have given some new tricks to a play that can seem like a very old dog. The story, for the two people out there who don’t know, involves a Scottish thane who conspires to become king after some witches reveal that a crown lies in his future. A lot of blood and ghostly business ensues. Here, thanks to a lean edit and some creative interpretation of the text, the story is heightened to something more then just the usual tale of violence and ambition.

That the Macbeths have lost a child is something that is usually ignored (Lady Macbeth alludes to it only once). 

As the eponymous character, Hugh Thompson makes Macbeth into little more than a petty thug who quickly finds himself in over his head. Adept on the battlefield, Thompson’s Macbeth is not exactly a great tactician. Lady Macbeth (Phillipa Domville) does her best to help but this Macbeth is a bull who charges forward and destroys everything in his wake. Other characters are given an equally bold re-imagining. Rosse (Thomas Olajide) is an oily turncoat while Prince Malcolm (Greg Gale) is an effeminate peacock. 

Thompson walks away with the part in his teeth and Domville does her best with what little is given (for all the fame of Lady Macbeth, she’s actually not in the show as much as you’d think). Ryan Hollyman also makes for a spectacular Macduff, especially in the last moments when it becomes clear that this Macduff is more than aware of what victory has cost. 

The show is set in the modern world - designer Victoria Wallace has given us some modern dress and at some point a piece of chewing gum makes an appearance – but it’s probably better not to consider the logic of this (Scotland hasn’t had a monarchy in a few hundred years). In any case, the story is a timeless one; the where and when doesn’t matter so much as the why. And it is here that Wells and his crack team of actors have managed to shine a few new spotlights into Macbeth’s dusty corners.

The key to Ker Wells’ interpretation stems from an extrapolation of what is usually a minor plot point. That the Macbeths have lost a child is something that is usually ignored (Lady Macbeth alludes to it only once). Wells has taken this small moment and used it to spin an entirely new perspective on the Macbeths' motivations. That they have no children of their own becomes paramount, especially when faced with the prophecy that Banquo’s children will become kings. Later, Macbeth’s second visit to the witches spins into a wild hallucination where a skeletal child emerges to deliver more predictions about the days to come. 

For the most part, this interpretation serves the text and illuminates the impact of loss and grief on the disintegration of the self. It did, however, lead Wells to interpolate an unfortunate “twist” ending into the last four seconds of the play. It’s more or less harmless but it still felt like a slight misstep that undermines the drama of the final climactic moment. It’s bound to provoke discussion - at least among writers and Shakespeare purists; everyone else will probably not give it a second thought.

CanStage is running a repertory season this summer, with the same cast doing double duty in The Taming of the Shrew, though they are being directed by Ted Witzel. The shows are the result of a collaboration with York University’s MFA Program in Stage Direction – Witzel and Wells are the inaugural graduates. If Macbeth is any indication, then the program has done its job. 

Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare run in reparatory in Toronto at High Park until September 1, 2013. All tickets are Pay-What-You-Can. For more information visit

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