The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth is drenched—soaked in yearning that approaches desperation, in anguish, and of course, in blood. From the moment it begins with the gold-masked witches’ crisply articulated premonition, the audience can’t help but feel submerged in the terrible tragedy and beguiling wit of the show.
Matthew Libby’s (director, ‘17) Macbeth thrives on its ability to create a feeling of inescapable, urgent, and unravelling time. The use of parallel black curtains as entrances and exits with a catwalk-esque strip between (designed by Miranda Vogt, ‘19) facilitates a sense of a dark and unstoppable history unfolding before an audience who can offer the characters no warning. There’s little to do as an onlooker but watch in astonishment as ambition turns to violence and murder warps into madness. Macbeth’s (Jake Goldstein, ‘19) desire to control time in search of destiny—to speed it up, to surpass it, to live beyond it—serves as the emotional and unsettling backbone of the production. He starts with youthful energy and starkly decays as the witches’ opening promise comes to fruition; with his age comes insatiability and insecurity, a dangerous combination.
Though the playing space is limited, it feels neither confined nor boring, but instead malleable and subject to interpretation. Perhaps the entire show exists in the dark confines of the Macbeth’s minds or in the hallways of cold castles. The truth lies in whatever the audience chooses to imagine, and this freedom to individually fabricate elements of Macbeth’s world is exhilarating. The intimate and immersive set up of EPC is unfortunate only in that it will limit the number of people who can see this incarnation of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.
The relatively simplicity of the design automatically focuses audience attention on the actors, and more specifically, the language. While some Shakespeare productions employ intricate sets and lighting to make language more accessible to a modern audience, Libby takes an opposite, and meticulously well executed, approach. In other words, it’s evident within the first five minutes that serious table work went into every scene. Each member of the company delivers their lines with natural clarity and intention, not simply mitigating potential confusion but imbuing the words with meaning and realness.
The near-three hours are carried by Gracie Goheen (‘20, Lady Macbeth) and Goldstein, who are equally mesmerizing together and apart. From their first power-hungry kiss to Goheen’s scornful snatching of murder weapons from Goldstein’s shaking hands, rarely has Stanford theater seen a more competent and compelling duo. They are buoyed by an ensemble littered with notable performances, including Zachary Dammann’s (‘18) jovial King Duncan, Kaya McRuer (‘17) as the perpetually infuriated Macduff, and Evie Johnson’s (‘20) inebriated Seyton, to name a few. Though the middle of the second act drags on a bit too long, the audience is pulled back into the story by Lady Macduff’s (Lexi Stein, ‘19) unknowing and thoughtful goodbye with her child (Ali Rosenthal, ‘20) who is too young to comprehend the events of his world.
Early in the show, Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to “be not lost / So poorly in your thoughts,” and yet her words feel as much a command to the audience as they are to Macbeth. For much of the evening, we are lost in thought with him, or with her, and entangled in their world of obsession and the impossible distinction between chance and destiny. Ultimately, the characters are subject to the world they create, and the audience must live with them in their choices.
Macbeth ends with a ticking clock, a new king, and the inevitable sense that calamity is moments from ensuing once more. Power, and its accompanying instability, transcend even royal time.
The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth runs February 22, 23, and 25 at 8 pm, and February 24 at 7 pm, in the Elliot Program Center.
Photos courtesy of Frank Chen.