Bard on the Beach’s Macbeth is Fantastic and Furious

Photo: Tim Matheson

“All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”

With the prophecy of the three “weird sisters” or witches, ringing in his ears, the warrior Macbeth begins to contemplate the unthinkable—the murder of Scotland’s beloved King Duncan. He confesses this vision to his wife, the Lady Macbeth, one of the most iconic villainous women in theatre, sparking her immense ambition. When King Duncan comes to visit, she urges Macbeth to slay the king in his sleep. Chastised by his wife and seemingly compelled by the witches’ words, Macbeth draws his dagger: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”

Bard on the Beach begins their season with a Macbeth that is violent and exciting. No modern treatment here, no Macbeth as an overly ambitious car salesman or inner city drug dealer. This is a traditional, medieval, and bloody affair with clashing swords and excellent Elizabethan costumes by Christine Reimer. The shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is a thrilling start to Bard’s season.

Infernal forces are at work throughout Macbeth, like mist on the moors. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air,” shriek the three witches. Whether these hellish powers are responsible for the murder and mayhem that follows or are merely gleeful members of the audience, it is difficult to say.

Chris Abraham’s production begins with the entire company banging on the floor, and the trapdoor concealed there. This pounding could be the sound of an army on the march, the drums of hell, or a banging in a murder’s chest like The Tell Tale Heart. Reaching a crescendo, the company jumps to its feet, swords are drawn—a battle of all-against-all. One sobbing woman remains; her sobs break and give way to witchy cackles. The trapdoor in the centre of the stage smokes red.

It’s a hell of a start and one that raises intriguing questions about the relation between loss, violence, and the supernatural. Are the three witches creatures from another realm or the shadows of this one? “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, And these are of them,” notes Banquo.

Whatever their true nature, Emma Slipp, Kate Besworth, and Harveen Sandhu, bring a feral passion and disturbing sensuality to the role, cackling, twitching, and gyrating to the pounding drums of Owen Belton’s soundscape.  

Loss also drives the actions of Lady Macbeth. Early on, we see Lady Macbeth standing over an empty crib. As Abraham asks in the Director’s Notes, “How does this loss shape their sense of identity, their sense of their own power? How does this loss shape Macbeth’s sense of his own manhood, and Lady Macbeth’s understanding of her life’s purpose?”

As Macbeth, Ben Carlson carries us convincingly from nagging desire to violence, guilt, and madness. It’s an impressive transformation, one that is all the more interesting because Carlson manages to make the character seem both compelled beyond his wishes and responsible for his crimes. His counterpart, Moya O’Connell as Lady Macbeth, is ruthless, cagey, and memorable. The two make a compelling power couple; for all their crimes, they seem to love each other, at least while they can.

Andrew Wheeler as Macduff is a larger than life force of retribution. Craig Erickson is an excellent Banquo, especially when arrives to the feast, freshly murdered and gory.

At the end of the play, Scotland has a new king, and justice is served. Or is it?

Alarmingly, the witches seem to have slipped inside the castle gates. Abraham’s treatment leaves us feeling more unsettled than victorious and that is for the best. If Macbeth were merely the story of Scottish brutes pummelling each other for a throne it wouldn’t be a story worth retelling. But it is far more—it is a play about the allure and trap of power, about fate and choice, hell and earth—and this production is a tale that is “full of sound and fury” signifying much.