1 July 2006: Shakespeare, Macbeth

Hampshire Shakespeare Company, at the Hartsbrook School, Hadley, Mass. Directed by Chris Rohmann. June 23 – July 9

Hampshire Shakespeare Company is a surprisingly well-disciplined amateur company with a true zest for performing Shakespeare. Each summer they do two plays — the second this summer will be Much Ado — on a permanent outdoor stage adaptable to any scene, interior or exterior. Some of the actors are new to the stage, and some simply lack much talent, but the company has the good fortune to acquire stage directors who know their craft and have clear ideas of how to find a “through line” of interpretation for the play and to express the idea in well-paced action.

Chris Rohmann’s two-and-a-half-hour Macbeth is no exception. He sets a brisk pace, while at the same time recognizing that Shakespeare’s development of Macbeth’s power of imagination through inner rumination is not only fund­amental to the character but key to the play. The Macbeth, Dan Kennedy, and the Lady Macbeth, Mary Kearney, are up to what they are charged with by Rohm­ann. There is a wonderful reciprocity of guilt in these two characters — a fact that, to be sure, appears in an attentive reading, but that, properly managed on stage, makes the entire play coherent and terribly intense. Macbeth begins with great imaginings (“To know this deed, ‘twere best not know myself”), while Lady Macbeth explicitly abjures any guilt, calling on spirits to “unsex me here” and accusing Macbeth of unmanliness when he falters. But there are tell-tale signs of Lady Macbeth’s frailty (“Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it”); and by the time the play is half over, Macbeth is so inured to butch­ery — “I am in blood stepped in so far, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” — that he can lower himself to any act, however despicable. “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,” he says to his Lady, “‘Till thou applaud the deed.” It’s clear that by that point Lady Macbeth has been excluded from the circle of active planning to keep Macbeth’s hold on the crown secure; and the more passive she becomes, the more she begins to succumb to guilty feelings, which in her case break into her sleep and send her walking, searching for some means to wash her hands free of the blood of Duncan that persists in clinging to them. The irony of her comment in the early scene of murder, “A little water clears us of this deed,” is deep and biting.

Rohmann brings these values out very nicely. I could have wished that Dan Kennedy’s Macbeth had taken more time with the last soliloquy — “She should have died hereafter . . . ”; as it was, he was too upbeat, too riled up by one report after another signaling that he has been “betrayed in deepest consequence” by trifling ostensible truths. Rohmann’s way of handling the witches was to make them double as work hands in Macbeth’s castle, but it was not quite clear how this linked up with their supernatural powers. Another choice he made was more useful: bringing the Doctor on much earlier, in the banquet scene, and giving him a few incidental lines to establish his character, as he observes Macbeth and his Lady. This enrich­es his comments on Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking later in the action and on his incisive response to Macbeth’s near-rhetorical query “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow . . . ?” To which the Doctor responds, “Therein must the patient minister to himself.” The origins of modern psychotherapy lie in that deep observation.

What to do with the Porter is a perennial problem. The textbook example of comic relief (itself a troublesome term), if you play it straight and keep to the text it’s a strain to make it funny. I have seen such extremes as having him urinate on stage, his back mercifully turned to the audience (this in a UMass Amherst Theater Department production in the 1970s, of which the less said the better). Rohmann’s solution is to take off on the persistent knocking at the gate and have the Porter initiate a series of “Knock-Knock” jokes, encouraging a reluctant audi­ence to participate. Well, it was fun for a few minutes, but perhaps it made us forget all about the impending discovery of the murder of Duncan. I was willing to accept this as an unorthodox solution to a perennial problem, but Rohmann complicated matters by having the Porter be the Third Murderer who turns up to help with the killing of Banquo and Fleance. If this was doubling there was no attempt to change the makeup or costume of the Porter. And having done this much, Rohmann also brought the Porter in as one of the killers of Lady MacDuff and her son — specifically, he kills the son. This is very problematic, because we grow to like the Porter rather quickly in his solo scene, and in these additional scenes he becomes decidedly antipathetic, leaving some confusion in our minds well into the late scenes of the play, where the Porter simply becomes another of Macbeth’s functionaries.

There were few problems of this kind in the production overall, however, and the action was so clear, and the scenes between Macbeth and his Lady so dramatic and effective, that one could easily forgive directorial responses to exigencies that all too often rear their heads in casting and mounting a Shakespeare play. I look forward to their Much Ado.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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