The Last King of Scotland

It’s that time of year again. June first was the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This year’s headline production: Macbeth starring Colm Feore and Yanna McIntosh, and directed by Des McAnuff, Artistic Director of the festival.

Macbeth is a hard play for me to see, if it is done at all well. (And if it’s done poorly, it’s a hard play for anybody to see.) It is a story of a not-so-horrible man who commits a horrible crime, and is transformed by his crime into a monster. He commits the crime in spite of the fact that he knows it is a crime, is possessed not only of a moral sense but of natural empathy – “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” according to his wife; in spite not only of presentiments that it will not come off, but of a vivid knowledge of the full horror of what he is planning to do before he does it, a horror so vivid it manifests itself in actual hallucinations. In other words, Macbeth knows exactly what he’s doing, allows himself no excuses – and does it anyway.

And we are like that, I think, more than we would like to admit. We come to forks in our lives, where a fateful decision must be made, and yet we do not feel there is a choice: one road only calls to us by name, and we must take it, even if we see that it leads us to a cliff, and over. That is our road, you see; not to take it would be not to be. And if tonight we are to be a villain, well, then a villain we are to be – and we seize our destiny in full knowledge of our own damnation.

Macbeth repents almost immediately upon commission of the crime – “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!” – but this is not Crime and Punishment. In the world of Macbeth the only supernatural powers in evidence are on the side of evil, and evil is a palpable thing, not the mere denial or rejection of good. And so the impulse to repentance does no good – cannot do good. Returning were as tedious as go o’er. What’s done cannot be undone.

It’s not exactly fun to spend an evening inside such a mind – and inside that mind is where we spend most of the play. I cannot even say the experience is exactly cathartic. But it is a deepening experience, and a useful warning if nothing else, a charm to protect us on some fair, foul day when the witches take their whispering turn with us, as inevitably they will.

So: how was the experience of this production?

This is the second production of Macbeth I’ve seen this year with a modern setting. In the previous case – at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – that setting was generic and did nothing for me; in this case, it is highly specific, and an interesting choice, but simultaneously impossible. The production is set in Rhodesia in the 1960s. But it is not set in a Rhodesia that actually existed anywhere in reality. Rather, it is set in a fantasy Rhodesia in which whites and blacks lived and worked side by side, and where the ruler of the country could have been a white man married to a black woman.

I have genuinely no idea what this is supposed to mean. This is the second McAnuff production I’ve seen that used race in casting in ways that must be conscious but intially confusing. Last year’s Romeo and Juliet featured a mixed-race cast, with a black Juliet and a white Romeo. But both sets of parents were mixed-race couples: papa Capulet was white and his lady black, while the opposite arrangement obtained among the Montagues. The setting, meanwhile, was modern Italy, with an excursion into period part way through. I ultimately interpreted the casting choices in that production as a deliberate attempt to frustrate any racial coding: we didn’t have colorblind casting exactly, but casting that deliberately set out to suggest a colorblind society. Given that the feud at the heart of R&J could easily have taken on racial overtones if he’d given Juliet two black parents and Romeo two white ones, and that McAnuff might reasonably have wanted to avoid this interpretation, I thought I understood why he cast the way he did.

But now he’s done it again, in a production that is set in a place and period where race had a central meaning to the political and social system – and there is no particular reason to choose such a setting unless one wanted to make some kind of point about that political and social system. And yet, once again, he casts in such a way as to deliberately create a fictional world in which color doesn’t matter. The black characters are played as Africans – Lady Macduff wears a traditional African outfit, for instance – but they do not occupy the social space that Africans would have occupied in the place and period where the production is set. It is very confusing, but it must be deliberate, and I wound up deciding that it was a distracting mistake.

If McAnuff wanted an African Macbeth, and still wanted Colm Feore in the lead, and wanted Africans to be central parts of the drama rather than presences on the periphery of a drama about whites, he should bitten the bullet and had Colm Feore to play the title role as a black African.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that he should have had Feore engage in some kind of minstrelry. Let him be himself, the same way he (appropriately) lets black actors be themselves when they are playing Italians or Englishmen. But let us, the audience, know that while he is still Colm Feore, being himself, he’s playing a black African. That would, at least, have given us some reason to relate to the setting he chose. Quite apart from the welcome attention that the inevitable protests would bring, I think it would have been a far more interesting choice than the fantasy colorblind choice he went with.

Indeed, really embracing the African setting would have livened up the production in other ways. The play begins with witches, but they are not obviously African witches (though two of the actresses are black); they are not, by attire or body habitus or sound, strongly rooted anywhere; they are stage witches. But what terrifying presences they could have been! Similarly, the music is stage music, not obviously rooted in the purported setting. But think of what a rich vein of emotion was left unmined by not using African sounds, African rhythms! All in all, the whole setting felt like a conceit that the director did not have enough confidence in to fully embrace, and therefore did not fully realize.

The setting was the big directorial “choice” that, as it were, colored the entire production. The subsidiary choices were a mixed bag. I have no personal objection to firearms in Shakespeare, but they always create a problem when a sword fight is absolutely called for, and so they do here; it is never clear why neither Macbeth nor Macduff make use of the machine gun lying beside them as they battle with machetes. The witches were generally not well-conceived, the trio not obviously composed of distinct personalities, and undermined rather than enhanced by silly effects (and by their absence as well: having them simply walk offstage while Macbeth talks about them melting into air seemed especially pointless). The set is extremely spare, composed mainly of functional metal office furniture. The only scene where the set comes to life is the banquet scene, one of the best in the production all around. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t see it as well as I would have liked; McAnuff made the strange decision to build up the Festival stage by a foot or two, so that folks like me who had seats close to the front wound up looking up at the actors instead of out at them.)

Some other peculiar directorial decisions: intercutting the scene in the Macduff household with the scene in England between Macduff and Malcolm undermines both scenes; I guess McAnuff was trying to create suspense, but instead he drains the scene in England of much of its tension, and when we are jerked back to Scotland for the murder of the Macduff family (which is very well done in and of itself, I will say; little Macduff dies very gruesomely, as he should, and the murderers appear to have far more authority behind them than usual – they are not hiding what business they are about), we cannot adjust quickly enough to fully appreciate the horrible events we witness.

But in the end, what makes a production of Macbeth are the two leads. And here, this production was very fortunate indeed.

Feore starts off oddly, and I was a bit worried about what he was up to. Macbeth, in his first scenes, seems strangely eager to please, almost ingratiating – he’s always grinning and turning from one person to the next. Is this the man of whom the first fact we learn is that he chopped a man in half – “unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps”? His first scenes with Lady Macbeth are also puzzling, but on reflection began to make sense to me. He is weaker with her than I am accustomed to thinking Macbeth to be; he is eager to please her as well. This is not a marriage of equals; in fact, it’s not really a marriage at all. Several years ago, I saw Feore play Coriolanus on the same stage, and a couple of times, watching him and Yanna McIntosh in their scenes together prior to the murder, I found myself thinking that I was watching the Roman and his mother, Volumnia, rather than the Scotsman and his Lady.

The dagger scene was probably Feore’s weakest, most stagy moment of the production. But his performance really came together for me immediately after the murder. Here we see everything in the man’s face and hands, the full measure of his horror at what he has done, what he has become, irrevocably. For the first time, he is beyond his wife’s reach; she fusses about him, but he doesn’t see her, is no longer in the same room with her. He did this for her, after all, not out of love, in this production, but out of obedience, and now, well, now there’s nothing left of him to give her. He will protect her from what he has become, and consequently keep her in the dark – it is the least, and the most, he can do – but he is gone from her, in an instant, never to return, and she sees this, from the first instant. Her hair begins to gray, her face to pale, almost immediately.

Feore has a series of very strong scenes immediately thereafter, and holds the audience from then until very near the end. His speech upon the discovery of the murder of Duncan was played very fine; it’s usually done as a kind of theater, Macbeth putting on a show of wailing to mask his guilt, but Feore does it quietly, as if Macbeth means every word, as well he might as they can easily be construed to have a private meaning quite opposite to what the other Scots are hearing (well might he mean that had he but died an hour before, he had lived a blessed time). Not long after, his scene with the two murderers hired to dispatch Banquo is a tour de force. They, to begin with, are far more developed as characters than usual (and are played by extremely capable actors, Peter Hutt and Sean Arbuckle), and Macbeth plays them masterfully, all the while letting us know how much he despises himself that these is his natural company now. And then the banquet scene, which is positively electric.

Right through to his abstractedly weary “tomorrow” speech, Feore gives us a fully persuasive and unusual Macbeth, far from a creature of overweening ambition, an almost accidental warrior, to say nothing of an accidental king; a lonely man, amazed to have landed such a spirited woman for a wife, eager like a dog to please his royal master and receive treats from him, who seals himself in a loneliness far more total, and unbreachable, by an unpardonable crime that he does knowing full well what he is doing, but honestly having no very clear idea why he is doing it.

And what of his lady? McIntosh and Feore do not do wonders for me when they are supposed to be in love, but in her scenes alone, with him or without him, she is dynamite. She senses her husband’s estrangement and withdrawal immediately after the murders – she is nervous that he will give the game away, but nervous as well that he is not looking at her. When she realizes that he is hiding his plans from her, she is not hurt – she is frightened. She does not know this man anymore.

Any Lady M is going to be judged first and foremost by her mad scene. The last time Stratford mounted Macbeth, with Lucy Peacock in the female lead, they staged this scene in a starkly expressionist style, Lady Macbeth surrounded by a white sheete that covered the stage like the padding of a madwoman’s cell, and then sank into it, drowning her in vanishing whiteness as the scene ended. It was an extremely effective moment in a play most notable for its staging (and even more so for its lighting). McIntosh’s mad scene was as opposite as could be, and if anything even more affecting. It was staged, and she played it, with cold realism, muttering her lines (I do not mean to suggest she mumbled them; every syllable was completely clear) like a real sleepwalker, wandering the stage in abstracted search – for the bloody daggers, for her absent husband, for the door out of the prison she constructed of her crime. It sent chills down my spine.

And that’s the play. If you are held by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, then the production was a success. And I was held.

A few words about the supporting cast. Geraint Wyn Davies is a very appealing Duncan, more a hearty than an innocent; you can understand why Macbeth would want to win his favor and his love – he has glamour and charisma, not merely office. Tom Rooney brings down the house as the Porter; for opening night, he was instructed to pick out prominent members of the audience with his flashlight, and his lines were changed to fit the occupations of the targets – a broker rather than a farmer; a legislator rather than an equivocator; this is crowd-pleasing stuff, and more power to them for it. Timothy Stickney does creditable work as Banquo, and even more so as the ghost. Gareth Potter is an appealing and believable Malcolm, and does more with his scene of self-accusation than many Malcolms I’ve seen, but I sort of wish that Dion Johnstone had been cast in the role because I like him very much as an actor (he was a fine Orlando, for instance) but he is miscast as Macduff. He is unable to encompass his loss – never was a line more inapt than Malcolm’s “dispute it like a man,” for Johnstone has gone straight to anger already, never really passing through grief, or even shock. As noted above, the witches are rather weak, and the murderers exceptionally strong.

Unfortunately, the production ends a bit weakly. “Tomorrow” is Feore’s swan song in this production – it’s beautifully sung, but he’s not really onstage thereafter. Macduff takes a vigorous revenge, but the machete battle never makes sense and, more important, if we do not fully feel his grief, we cannot fully share his fury. And then we are given the last, confusing twist in the setting. Malcolm, after the battle, is presented as fully under the thumb of Seyward and his English troops. The Union Jack is brought out for the first time at Malcolm’s first press conference as king, and Seyward stands behind him as he announces that his Thanes will henceforth be Earls, to murmured consternation of the assembled Scots. Though certainly not a suggestion that Malcolm will be another tyrant, it is a clear attempt to open up what is a pretty firm closure in the text. Which I don’t object to as such, but what’s the point here? Without a clear political theme woven through the production, this attempt to unresolve the ending just feels like one more dangling thread.

But even if it doesn’t all tie together, this is a production worth seeing – for Colm Feore and Yanna McIntosh first and foremost.