Shakespeare’s plays are timeless classics, but with classics comes the fear and expectation that they might be cliche, uninteresting, made apparent in their worn age. And as I was strolling up the stairs to the Iseman Theater to watch the Yale School of Drama’s new rendition of Macbeth, I had curiosities dwelling in my mind. What emphasis would they place on the witches? What lines would they cut and which ones would they preserve? Would they focus on a more modern psychological interpretation, or on a supernatural exposition? Most importantly, how would they make a fresh performance bleed from ancient pages?
Preparing for the performance, I noted a few things about the stage. It was small, and jutted out toward the audience, who were arranged around its three sides. It had one wall in the back, which had three poles and black interweaving bars across. Far into the recesses of the stage above the wall, there was a platform on which actors could stand. The set itself consisted of mostly dirt, a small stone slab and then a larger boulder near the wall in the back corner. It was barren. It was small. It was dark and enclosed. I didn’t have much of an opinion, but they certainly weren’t going for a baroque style, or anything refined and classical.
The play began in pitch black darkness. Poured out from the nothingness was the guttural riff of a guitar. The grungy sound caught me off guard. This was peculiar, but scintillating. An anxiety was bubbling in the pores of my body, and this was all from the first sound. There was a pulsing of the grungy metal, but with a hint of war revelry tied up in the sound. It was anxious, angsty, with an undercurrent of rage. This was a good omen for the Scottish Play.
The music died down. The barren scene, bordered in darkness, flashed before us. We saw a few men. They seemed to be preparing for war, decorating their faces with ghostly white powder, applying blue paint and mentally psyching themselves up. Three characters watched from the darkness, pressed up against the wall. There was something odd here, something odious. After a few minutes of this tense silence, darkness fell again.
We watched the creatures slither across the stage following the exit of the soldiers. The three split, walking toward separate sides, staring into the souls of the audience. A sickly pale blue light shone on their faces, and it was then that we heard the witches, their banshee cries. Silence, then rage. They were disheveled. They were grotesque. And it was as they opened their mangled maws, as we saw the blood gurgling in their throats, as we saw the dark deathly red coating their jaws, that I knew this performance would satisfy any doubts as to the ability to provide a rich, bloody performance from something ancient.
Indeed, as I watched the play, I observed a style that again and again reinforced the thrilling anxiety, one that inherently makes Macbeth interesting. Care was placed to emphasize this wild, erratic terror, and was found not only in the structure of the play, but also the visual aesthetics. Lasting an hour and 40 minutes, the action never stopped, and this produced a palpable effect: The audience never had a chance to relieve the anxiety, just as Macbeth was never released from his thrashing and tumbling toward death. That the empty stage was filled with shocking horrors emphasized the nothingness that was the foundation for Macbeth’s fury. In addition, scenes were cut from the original play, including several fighting scenes in Act 5. This served to streamline the story of Macbeth, reinforcing the eerie sense of time being so short yet filled with crazy, senseless energy. The witches were used extensively throughout the play, often in surprising ways, from crawling up walls to imitating and replacing several important characters. They also perpetually watched from their platform, giving a creepy sense of supernatural voyeurism, especially as we, too, watched Macbeth descend into madness. Were we implicated? And were the witches simply setting up Macbeth for downfall, or were they influencing him all along? The play manipulates these questions several times in pleasing and interesting ways.
The play was visceral; it was shocking and revolting and anxious. It possessed incredible angst. And out of this, I left pleased. The Iseman Theater’s rendition of Macbeth is one that I can call a personal favorite. Perhaps the most notable impact is when one exits to the street after all the strife and savagery is done, and the world’s mundane grayness settles in. All one could wonder was how absurd everything seemed in the face of such intense fury.