While sword fights may be a staple of Shakespearean tragedy and creepy witches one of the most iconic features of this particular play, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth proves Shakespeare’s spookiest play requires more than just sword fights and witches. It’s a shame, since a good production of Macbeth is never unwelcome when Halloween is around the corner, but this production does little to chill the air or plumb the depths of the protagonist’s mind as he plots his famous regicide.
As emphatically announced before the performance, the Shakespeare Tavern has taken a traditional approach to the play, complete with an Elizabethan-esque presentational style of acting. The expressed intent is to replicate how plays would have been performed during Shakespeare’s era (they call it “Original Practice”), creating a more intimate experience by having actors directly addressing the audience. However, while this tactic may yield a few engaging moments, the production is too paint-by-numbers to evoke the intended emotion.
It’s a bit like watching an outline of Macbeth: all of the important plot points are there, and the story is easy to follow, but it lacks the creativity or the intensity needed to make the script come alive. Actors speed through lines, never pausing to let a moment land or allow a thought to settle in their character’s mind. To their credit, the story is never less than clear, and Nicholas Faircloth and Amanda Lindsey McDonald do an admirable job of portraying the relationship between the Macbeths as it evolves, but the actual themes of power, politics and ambition feel disappointingly superficial.
The performances are not bad, per se, but there is an emptiness, and they fail to convey the tension and the enormity of Macbeth’s deeds. It is entirely unclear based on Faircloth’s mannerisms whether or not Macbeth actually wants to kill the king or whether he is being goaded into it by his wife. Meanwhile, McDonald never gives us a true feeling for why Lady Macbeth wants power so badly (her insatiable lust for ascension never seems to go deeper than “Hm, being queen would be nice.”).The actors seem all too happy to portray emotion with no intention; thus, the entire first act creeps along with nothing driving it.
There are a couple of affecting moments, to be sure. Macbeth’s rattling visions of the murdered Banquo are well acted and well staged, with Faircloth and McDonald playing off of each other with skill. However, the event is never more than shocking, as the production fails to let us feel the consequences of Macbeth’s descent into madness. There is a lack of interiority that leaves us cold, even when the play should be leaving us breathless.
It’s not until we spend some time away from the Macbeths that the play starts to pick up in intensity. The integration of the Weird Sisters into several key scenes (including Lady Macbeth’s spiral into madness and the murder of Banquo) gives them an aura of omnipresence, as if they are haunting every corner of the theater and manipulating everything from behind the scenes.
Also, a few scenes between Macbeth’s enemies are dynamic enough to lend some genuine dramatic tension to the conflict. Gracie Wallace and Brandy Bell do excellent jobs as Lady Macduff and her child, selling us on their parent-child bond just before they are savagely slaughtered. Charlie T. Thomas is fantastic as Macduff, and his heartbreak at hearing of the deaths of his family is one of the most brutally effective moments in the play; inside his anguish are all of the emotional stakes missing in Act I.
Kenneth Wigley also gets a well-deserved shoutout for his hilarious turn as the Porter. It has always been a curious choice on Shakespeare’s part to drop such a comedic scene in the middle of a decidedly non-comedic play, but Wigley’s performance comes as a welcome respite from the hollow monotony of Act I.
Director and fight choreographer Mary Ruth Ralston pulls out all the stops for the finale, though with so little invested in Macbeth, it’s all too easy for the audience to root for Macduff. Perhaps that is for the best, since that investment definitely returns some gratifying catharsis when Macduff walks in from the battle with Macbeth’s severed head in a bag — but it also reduces the conflict to a simple revenge story. Ultimately, you could remove half the first act and the emotional payout would be the same. Unfortunately, as the lights come back on, one cannot help but feel like, rather than a haunting play about the dangers of unchecked ambition, this Macbeth is about little more than sword fights and witches.
Luke Evans is an Atlanta-based writer, critic and dramaturg. He covers theater for ArtsATL and Broadway World Atlanta and has worked with theaters such as the Alliance, Actor’s Express, Out Front Theatre and Woodstock Arts. He’s a graduate of Oglethorpe University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Houston, where he earned his master’s.