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AFTLS simplifies Shakespeare with “Macbeth”

Michelle Fordice | Monday, September 17, 2007

Upon returning happily victorious from battle and in the midst of a storm, tragic Scot Macbeth remarks, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

The recent production of “Macbeth” by the Actors from the London Stage in Washington Hall this past weekend was similarly dichotomous. While it was an excellent show, it managed to include some striking faults. Surprisingly, the simple production had, at times, too much going on.

The Actors from the London Stage are known for pursuing a minimalist interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. As such, this production of “Macbeth” did not include elaborate sets or props. Yet, there still seemed to be more on stage than was needed.

Some of the characters, including Macbeth and Banquo, were fully costumed rather than marked by a single piece of clothing. The actors would often signify that they were switching characters by adding further accouterments to their base costumes. As a result, it was occasionally hard to distinguish which character they were playing. It would have been easier if each actor wore a black base and then added a different identifier for each role he filled.

Furthermore, if the company wanted to pursue period costuming, it should have done so across the board. Some characters had kilts, and others wore ties and North Face jackets. As a whole, the results were messy.

In defense of the company, “Macbeth” is a particularly difficult play to reduce. It is filled with magical elements that require some special effects. The company succeeded in keeping this part of the play as simple as possible.

Using light effects and playing their own instruments, the cast replicated some of the mysterious portions of the play very well. The scenes with the witches were satisfyingly eerie and peculiar.

This type of production would also be difficult for first-time viewers of the play to understand. Five actors play more than 25 parts, sometimes simultaneously, and there is little environment to guide the audience. While it is possible to pick up the plot through the dialogue and action, it is a challenge to catch everything, especially in a play where some of the major actions occur off stage and all of it is in Shakespearian English.

All of the plays presented by the Actors from the London Stage are a celebration of the strengths of the actors they feature, and this version of “Macbeth” was no different. With no director, it was up to the actors to make all of the artistic decisions, resulting in a collaborative effort that stayed true to the original Shakespeare.

Furthermore, with so few actors on stage, each had to stretch and diversify himself to fit into all of the parts. The same actor who played a witch in one scene would go on to play a king or a murderer in the next. Will Ashcroft especially rose to the occasion. Playing six roles, Ashcroft was the crowd favorite as the drunken Porter and was also very strong as Banquo.

While this production of “Macbeth” by the Actors from the London Stage had some faults, it succeeded in its intent. For someone familiar with the play, it was a chance to see the text in a very different format. More alive than words on a page, but not visually overwhelming like other productions, this actor-driven version let Shakespeare’s story rise above its trappings