The Three Witches' chant -- "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" -- set the tone of moral inversion and resonated throughout director Geoffrey Sherman's post-apocalyptic rendering of Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1606) during Saturday night's opening performance at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Match that with some of the clearest verse speaking in recent memory by the acting ensemble (more of this later), and what results is a provocative, disarmingly modern, and sometimes puzzling take on the Bard's shortest and arguably most familiar tragedy and its problematic hero.
In a society that believed in witchcraft, whose reigning Stuart monarch James I (James VI of Scotland) wrote a treatise on it titled Daemonologie (1597), and where a well-known witch-hunt manual called Malleus Maleficarum (1486) issued a "horrible warning about what happens when intolerance takes over a society", Shakespeare reinvented the historical Macbeth to his own designs, turning him from an essentially good man into a tyrannical despot whose ambition is hard to stop once he commits to his ruthless course of action, partly one assumes to compliment the new king through Banquo, the prophesied begetter of a long line of Stuart kings.
At the start, Macbeth and Banquo have put down a local rebellion and an invasion by Norway, and are regarded as heroes. What seems "fair" at the beginning is made "foul" all too soon; when the Witches tell him he will be king, Macbeth with the help of Lady Macbeth sets out on a bloody course to ensure the fulfillment of the prophesy, and turns Scotland into a country that "doesn't know itself". From the murder of King Duncan, the remainder of the play pulls us along with a growing body-count -- "Blood will have blood" -- making each successive murder a rationalization of Macbeth's quest for power.
Though the Witches [Greta Lambert, Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel, Jillian Walkewr] appear infrequently, they are the key to the plot, to Macbeth's drive for power, and for pointing out to us the perversion of the moral and natural orders at the center of both Jacobean and 21st Century concerns. The hero at the beginning turns into an overly-confident monster willing to believe he is unassailable; he has become King, and the Witches also tell him to "Beware Macduff" though "...none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth" and that he "...shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him". From the start, they have said that "fair is foul" [confusing truth and falsehood, good and bad, appearance and reality], so the dramatic irony of Macbeth's actions and beliefs becomes the crux of the matter.
Staged on Peter Hicks' striking set -- a series of clean angular raked platforms suggesting the sharp divisions and treacheries of the plot -- and dressed in Brenda Van der Weil's leather and metal [with even the odd Scottish tartan] costumes, and wigs with references to punk-Goth-NewWave-country cultures, the world of this Macbeth is sure to puzzle some, especially as such attention has been paid to Shakespeare's rich poetic language. One can't help but marvel at the actors speaking precisely and reverentially in their delivery of the power of the Bard's blank verse, his judicious use of occasional rhyming couplets, and the humanizing effect of the prose passages [especially Kurt Rhodes as the Porter whose scene is riddled with contemporary anachronistic references]. And yes, there is a certain contemporary sound to to the dialogue offering modern audiences an entry into the characters' lives.
Macbeth [Ian Bedford] and Lady Macbeth [Jennifer Barnhart] focus attention on their lust for power and for each other. Ms. Barnhart portrays Lady M as a cold and calculating warrior queen, one who feels entitled to the role and who will stop at nothing to achieve it for herself and for her husband. A chilling performance that has history to substantiate her rank as the widow of the former king Macbeth had killed -- a kind of trophy wife, but more importantly the strength he needs to succeed.
Though Macbeth's desire for the crown was initiated by the Witches, he quickly succumbs to Lady Macbeth's urgings. Mr. Bedford succeeds in showing the complexity of character in his gradual demise as he is caught up in the prophesies that begin his cavalier attitude that the ends justify the means; and though his conscience bothers him at key moments [the confrontation with Banquo's ghost during the banquet scene with Paul Hebron's solid portrayal a force to reckon with], by the end he is so steeped in blood and realizing the irony of the Witches pronouncements, he can say "I have lived long enough".
To counter the "butcher and his fiendlike queen", and to restore the balance of a moral order, our sympathies go out to the aforementioned Banquo, the upright soldier Macduff, and Malcolm -- the murdered King Duncan's son and heir. A heart rending scene of the murder of Lady Macduff [Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel] and Young Macduff [Crispin South] draws us in with its honest and credible performances. And the meeting of Macduff [Anthony Marble] and Malcolm [Jordan Barbour] in which they plan to wrest the throne from Macbeth, establishes both the moral high ground and their concern for the plight of Scotland and their kinsmen, topics which can be seen in headlines in the UK today. When Ross [Rodney Clark] delivers the news of Macduff's family's murders, Mr. Marble's grief and stalwart commitment are so truthful they are hard for us to bear. And Mr. Barbour [unwillingly at first] becomes the model Scottish king by reestablishing order to a landscape and a people who had suffered enough. "Foul" has returned to "fair".