Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Timothy D Stickney as Banquo

Timothy D. Stickney playing Banquo as a twentieth-century European general in Africa

Macbeth deals with historical figures in 11th-century Scotland, and they call it “the Scottish play.” So why would any director place its setting in central Africa, circa 1950? We knew there couldn’t be any good reason. But we figured something must have triggered director Des McAnuff’s thought process.

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

At first we thought this was another unfortunate case of clumsiness in dealing with a racially mixed cast. (The same director bungled this elementary task in 2008’s Romeo and Juliet, as we observed in this post a year ago.) Could McAnuff have thought that audiences would never “get” a Macbeth with black actors in key roles (Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, and Lady Macduff) unless it were set in Africa?

Anyway, that’s not our theory anymore. We think now that the seed was sown when McAnuff was watching the second season of the sadly short-lived Slings and Arrows television show, which we dug out of our stack of DVDs after we got back from our last visit of the year to Stratford, Ontario.

As many of Emsworth’s readers will know, this Canadian show, which ran for three seasons beginning in late 2003, chronicles three seasons in the history of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival, an Ontario repertory company that bears hilarious similarities to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The second season of Slings and Arrows deals mostly with the Festival’s production of Macbeth.  As the season begins, the Festival’s artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), is being pressured to put Macbeth on the playbill for the upcoming season. Reluctant to do it, he talks it over with his friend Nahum (Rothaford Gray), a security guard at New Burbage who once directed theater himself in his native Nigeria:

Tennant: They want me to do Macbeth.
Nahum: Dammit!
Tennant: Why does that bother you?
Nahum: I do not like that play. It teaches us nothing.
Tennant: It teaches us about evil.
Nahum: No! It shows us evil. It’s a portrait of a psychopath. Where I come from in Nigeria, it is a familiar sight. I’ve had my fill of psychopaths.

Bingo! Nigeria! Macbeth reimagined as the rise and fall of a murderous, monomaniac, twentieth-century African dictator!

MacbethIt wasn’t a good idea, anymore than this sort of thing usually is. (For instance, we’ve talked to several people who were so distracted by the contemporary-ish costumes and machine guns in this year’s Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival that they seemed not to have noticed how superbly acted that show was; they judged the show a failure based on how it looked.)  Post-colonial Africa had almost nothing in common with eleventh-century Scotland.  Did McAnuff seriously think it would help audiences understand this challenging play to have King Duncan hold a press conference (complete with an array of microphones and photographers with bulky flash cameras) to welcome Macbeth and Banquo back home? Or to have Macbeth’s armies fighting Malcolm’s on a battlefield with an army jeep and soldiers wielding automatic rifles?

And didn’t it occur to McAnuff that audiences would find it odd to hear Banquo’s assassins report to Macbeth that they’d cut his throat, when we’d just seen Banquo mugged and shot?

There was so much good acting in this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Festival that it’s a shame the overall production wasn’t more satisfying. We found the unmodulated high pitch of the play wearing, not enervating. The sets, the props, the costumes, and the special effects were distracting and incoherent. We were given a series of memorable visual images, which is something, but telling the story of the play seemed to be the last thing on the director’s mind.

The performance we saw got off to a poor start. We could hear only a little of the dialogue in the stage-setting opening scenes, in which many of the play’s principal characters are introduced.

Now, in some Shakespeare plays — Julius Caesar and Richard III, for instance — the playwright helped audiences keep track of who’s who on stage by having the characters repeatedly address each other by name. Unfortunately, he did very little of that in Macbeth, in which help would have been especially welcome because of the play’s large cast of characters. It is therefore all the more important that a director of Macbeth ensure that the opening scenes are not only lively, but audible. But in this show most of the actors in the first scene (after the witches) failed to project well enough for us to hear — and we weren’t far from the stage. Sometimes the problem with audibility was due to the background music, which was a lot like a movie score. Did McAnuff think that would make the play feel more comfortable for theater-goers who are more used to watching motion pictures?

MacbethAt any rate, it was a great relief when Macbeth (Colm Feore) and Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) appeared on stage. Both have strong, expressive voices, good diction, and the indispensable ability to make Elizabethan English heard and understood in the too-big Festival Theater.  (The talented Feore also had a wonderful role in the second season of Slings and Arrows — but not as Macbeth; he plays a wacked-out marketing consultant hired to “re-brand” the financially struggling New Burbage Festival.)


Tom Rooney as the Porter

rooThey were by no means the only actors we especially appreciated. Tom Rooney was wonderful in his brief appearance as the Macbeths’ porter; now we understand, for the first time, why this comic philosopher’s scene belongs in the play.  Also strong were Geraint Wyn Davies (Duncan in the play; he played an actor playing Macbeth in the second season of Slings and Arrows), Gareth Potter (a much better Malcolm than he was a Romeo a year ago), and John Vickery (Ross), who had the challenging task of breaking the news to Macduff (Dion Johnstone) that his family had been slaughtered.

For all that, the narrative power of the play just wasn’t there. We’ve commented before on the Othello we saw in Chicago a couple of years ago (directed by Marti Maraden, who is, thankfully, returning to Stratford in 2010 to direct The Winter’s Tale). Simply reading the text of Othello, we always found it hard to understand how the noble Moor could so quickly become so morbidly suspicious as to believe Colm Feore as Macbeth that his new wife was doing him dirty. On stage, however, his transformation was absolutely convincing, to the credit of both the director and Derrick Lee Weeden, who played Othello.

We’ve had a similar problem wih Macbeth.  Reading the play, we find it hard to understand how Duncan’s trusted general could so suddenly be overcome by ambition that he would embark on a series of savage murders to achieve what the witches had already pronounced as his destiny. (We don’t buy the notion that a soldier like Macbeth is such a “killing machine” that murdering friends in cold blood isn’t much different from what he does on the battlefield.) We hoped this Macbeth would show us how, but it didn’t.

P. G. Wodehouse quoted from Shakespeare more than any other poet, and (we think) from Macbeth more than from any other work of Shakespeare.  See this post.  Other posts from Emsworth about shows he saw during the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Jean Racine’s classic French drama on the ancient Greek tale of Phèdre (see this post)

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

Emsworth’s list of his own ten favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post).

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Alas, bad ideas tend to generate copycat bad ideas.


  2. This production is not the first to set the play in an African setting — see the book collection “Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance”:

    See also Giles Foden, author of “The Last King of Scotland,” who has called “Macbeth” “The African Play”:

  3. Mr. Trosper:

    Sadly, I missed Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. For several days people have been asking me what I thought of it. But I never watch PBS and need to figure out a way to get notice when this sort of thing is on. Maybe it’ll come out on video.

    YOU weren’t confused — and I wasn’t either, but we know the play. Anyway, why should a theatergoer (or movie viewer) EVER be forced to deal with lines not matching visuals? How can there be a good reason for it?


  4. I’m an obscure bird, perhaps, tho not that one. But may I answer your question to him or her, based on my viewing of the _Macbeth_ with Patrick Stewart? I was indeed mildly annoyed–not confused–by the few mismatchings between lines and visuals. But only mildly.

    As for the about-face of the bluff soldier, that production blamed his wife’s influence. Intentionally much younger than her husband . . . and Stewart said that in character she frightened HIM. They convinced me, and it does match the text of the play.

  5. I must confess that my hypothesis that McAnuff got the idea for an African setting from Slings and Arrows was mostly tongue-in-cheek; what I really thought was that it was just a random whim of his! But your “Last King of Scotland” theory may actually be the real thing. I missed the movie and didn’t know about Idi Amin’s fondness for Scotland. But of course I lived through the period when Idi Amin was slaughtering his countrymen left and right and tearing Uganda to pieces, just like Macbeth did (in the play, anyway).

    And you make a good point about Malcolm’s last lines.

    But tell me: why do you like having the play set in Africa – or, for that matter, anywhere besides Scotland, 1040 A.D.? You’re really not bothered by the incongruity of having dialogue that doesn’t match the visual images on stage? And even if you’re not bothered yourself, don’t you think that many theatergoers, who perhaps aren’t as familiar with the play as you are, might be confused?

  6. Hello,

    I just came across your website, and I’ve loved reading your reviews. I thought I’d mention, however, that although I certainly had my own objections to the Stratford staging of Macbeth, I was quite taken with the choice to set the play in Africa.

    I have never thought about the play’s treatment of the political relationship of England to Scotland in quite the same way that I did while watching this “African” Macbeth. Although you mention Slings and Arrows (which is my favorite TV series of all time, by the way) as a potential source of inspiration for the setting, my personal hunch is that the inspiration was the movie “The Last King of Scotland.” In this movie, Idi Amin, a Ugandan dictator, expresses his affection for Scotland–more particularly, his affection for Scottish culture as an alternative to that of the English. He admires the Scots for fighting the English, and wishes to “avenge” their failure to defeat the England.

    This version of the play made me think about, for lack of a better word, the “colonialist” aspects of the play. While I certainly don’t know if I agree with this interpretation, I found that I was looking at the same familiar lines in a different way. For example, Malcolm’s final lines:

    My thanes and kinsmen,
    Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
    In such an honour named.

    When the unfurling of the British flag beside the African flag accompanied these lines, I realized for the first time that one of the effects of Malcolm obtaining the aid of the English in fighting Macbeth might be argued to have been to replace one system of rule with another, and, by implication, to trade a “barbaric” culture for a “civilized” one. “No more bloody, backstabbing thanes. Let’s do things the proper English way….” And I had never even noticed that line.

    Anyway, just my two cents. I don’t know much, but I thought I’d share.

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