If you were among the select few lucky enough to score a ticket to any of the three sold-out showings of King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s Macbeth, directed by Madeleine George, BC ’23, you know what all the hype is about. If not, you’ll have to read on to see what you missed.
The Glicker-Milstein Theatre is, at its best, intimate, cozy, and immersive. With just five rows of chairs set atop a modest riser, the audience is never more than a dozen steps from the performers. One does not merely see the King of Scotland stabbed on stage but feels the floorboards tremble underfoot as his limp body crashes down.
The theater is also cramped, crowded, and oppressively hot.
So, sweating profusely and knocking knees with those seated on either side of me, I took in the set. It is austere: four wooden platforms stand center-stage, their matte black finish almost camouflaging them against the rest of the dark auditorium. They are connected, each ascending higher than the last to form a protracted staircase that climbs higher and higher. Until it abruptly falls back to the earth at its peak.
The only other set-piece is a simple gold crown that hangs suspended above the platform. It is easy to miss—just a metallic band—but its subtle presence looms palpably above the whole show. It is the object toward which the platform ascends, just out of reach. The crown’s seductive gaze drives every subsequent action that will come to pass beneath it.
By the time the lights dim and I hear the now-infamous line, “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” I’ve all but forgotten the stifling heat. I am drawn into the complex characters that compose the backbone of Macbeth.
Act I contained three stand-out performances. The first—the three Weird Sisters portrayed by Sofia Desanto, Evan Wantor, and Alex Prezeau—open the show, but their lingering, near-ubiquitous presence throughout provides an anchor for the viewer. At times rasping, at others singing, but always unnerving, The Sisters set the bar for performance quite high.
Yet this bar was met easily by the second stand-out performance of Act I: Liam McGrane as King Duncan. It is easy to discount a character such as Duncan, whose only narrative purpose is to die so that the more central characters can fulfill their arcs. Despite this uni-dimensionality, McGrane manages to embody the naive morality of the jovial King. He commands the stage physically whenever he is present not by rigidly claiming space, as Lady Macbeth does, nor by his inherent central importance to the plot, as is the case with Macbeth, but by being one of the few characters able to move freely. He believes he is among loyal subjects, so there is no hesitation in his body as he glides across the stage to embrace Banquo or greet Lady Macbeth. This unguarded acceptance of those around him cements the tragedy of his later betrayal at the hands of his hosts. It is also a mark of true talent to be able to appear at ease in front of a crowd of strangers while speaking outdated English in a plastic crown. (Don’t believe me? The one name I overheard discussed most at intermission was not Macbeth’s or Banquo’s, or any of the other characters given important moments alone with the audience, but Duncan’s.)
Finally, I would be utterly remiss if I did not commend the performance of ensemble member Eleanor Babwin whose portrayal of The Porter was perhaps the most memorable in the entire show. Babwin managed to sneak a nearly five-minute physical comedy bit worthy of Rowan Atkinson into the middle of a dark Shakespearean tragedy. I was dumbfounded. And I laughed like a maniac.
But Macbeth would not be Macbeth without the central trio of Banquo, Lady Macbeth, and the tragic anti-hero himself. It is around their relationships that the show turns, and it is the successful portrayal of each of these characters by Taylor Richardson, Nina Dia, and Erik Larsson respectively that makes King’s Crown’s performance so successful.
Banquo is the heart and soul of the central cast and represents the side of human nature that is not brutal, but compassionate. This is why Banquo is killed directly after intermission. There’s no place for goodness by the end of the Scottish Tragedy. But his presence, which returns spectrally in Act II, animates Macbeth throughout the show as a foil for his dastardly Machiavellianism. Rather than being defined by ambition, Banquo is defined by competing loyalties. He must honor his just King Duncan, support his best-friend Macbeth even when he suspects the worst, and protect the future of his son who is destined to one-day reign as king of Scotland himself.
This balancing act threatens to turn Banquo from a distinct character in his own right to a mess of relationality. But the unique stage presence of Banquo actor Taylor Richardson ensures that this is not the case. Richardson begins as a sunny point of light in an otherwise bleak performance, whose natural openness toward all she interacts with binds the characters. When Banquo is betrayed by his former partner and best friend, this light goes out. It is not often that the performance of one actor mirrors the mood of the entire stage, but this one does.
It is also through the character of Banquo that co-costume designers Laurel Carpenter and Carly Slager shine as well. Banquo wears a simple green sweater throughout Act I. After Duncan’s murder, as all color seems to drain from the stage save royal gold and blood red, this green is the one point of life that remains. That is, until Macbeth’s coronation when the spring green is covered by a colorless jacket and autumnal orange scarf. The organic colors decay and die, from springtime vitality to the crush of autumn, before the character of Banquo ever falls. This brief moment epitomizes the careful detail that must have gone into every aspect of this show.
If Banquo represents the hopeful humanity of the central trio, Lady Macbeth represents total moral disregard. This ambivalence of character—the delicate balance between the paragon of feminine docility she projects in public and her private schemings of regicidal ambition—makes Lady Macbeth one of the hardest characters to portray.
Nina Dia made it look like a walk in the park. From her changes in posture (relaxed and flexible in front of Duncan while rigid and demanding with her husband) to her varied manner of speech (easy and legato while playing the hostess, severely staccato while calling her husband’s manhood into question), it is clear that Dia understands what makes Lady Macbeth tick. More than that though, she allows this understanding to inform her portrayal in a manner that brings it alive for the audience. By the time Lady Macbeth cracks, scrubbing at phantom bloodstains that will not come out, Dia has the audience eating out of her red hands.
That leaves the titular Macbeth. Director Madeleine George is clear that Macbeth is not the story of characters fated to fall “like so many marionettes of malice” but rather “a story of man’s frailty and inability to affect choices.” In other words, it is George’s view that Macbeth’s tragic downfall is entirely the result of his own volition. Yet, as a character, he often seems subject to the whims of the world around him. He is driftwood on the tide.
In the interest of honesty, I must confess that Erik Larsson’s portrayal did not immediately arrest me like the others mentioned above. Though towering head-and-shoulders above everyone else on stage, he seemed apologetic for the space he occupied. His powerful arms, which were said to have cleft one of his enemies clean in half from collar to pelvis, hung impotently by his sides while Lady Macbeth taunted him to “screw his courage to the sticking place.” He was perpetually hunched, compressed into action by those around him, and only able to act when he believed fate to be on his side. Even then, he could only kill Duncan after bullying from his wife and could not even properly finish the job without her help. His Macbeth was thoroughly unimpressive.
But then a fundamental change occurred which made me realize that it was not lack of acting chops, but rather quite the opposite, that I found Larsson’s Macbeth underwhelming. Macbeth is a character paralyzed by his own radical freedom, who bears the burden of liberty on his shoulders at every moment. Larsson brought this characteristic to the forefront. But as the play progresses, Macbeth loses this inhibition as he loses himself. And Larsson, too, stopped apologizing for his presence on stage. With every nervous hallucination, carelessly thrown flask, and drunkenly swung sword, Larsson asserted himself as the dangerous tyrant Macbeth had become.
Larsson’s performance became so characteristically definitive that it recontextualized my understanding of Macbeth’s climax. I had originally attributed this moment to the flashy swordfight between Macduff and Macbeth in which the former finally slays the latter, freeing Scotland from a tyrant and revealing the twist in The Weird Sister’s prophecy that Macbeth is invulnerable to men of women born. But this was not the moment when the tension building throughout the show broke. Rather, it was Macbeth’s final soliloquy given in response to his wife’s suicide that signified the end of the line.
Upon hearing the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, Larsson made the choice to not launch directly into the iconic “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” Instead, he makes the boldest choice an actor can: he waits. He stood silent for a moment, then another, and then one more. Then he carefully removed the clear plastic mask each cast member had been wearing the entire show, a slight but perceptible barrier between them and the audience. No one dared breathe too loudly, let alone shift in their seats. When he finally began, it was not with the smooth iambic rhythms that Shakespeare often uses as aural novocaine to numb the listener into submission, but with the measured stops and starts of a man dealing with the collapse of all he holds dear in real-time. To say you could hear a pin drop during those pauses is to distract the truth of the statement with a cliché. He was in total control.
At the end of the soliloquy, the sound of the audience’s collective sighs, shifts, and scratches was deafening against this prior silence. Macbeth peaked not with sound and fury, but with silence.
Post edited for clarity, November 21 at 11:20 pm