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Heir Abhorrent 

This enthralling, confusing Macbeth posits childlessness as a source of murderousness

Wednesday, Jun 1 2005
Sigmund Freud, the bewhiskered grand pooh-bah of psychoanalysis, often sought inspiration from literature. His remarks on the Oedipal scheme in Hamlet, his theoretical essay "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming," and his psychobiographical essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide" attempted to understand the workings of the human mind through an exploration of literary figures. In "Some Character-Types Met With in Psycho-Analytical Work," Freud took on Macbeth in the same vein. The bulk of the essay focused on the couple's childlessness, blaming the Macbeths' ambition, bloodlust, and ultimate doom on the curse of being heirless. Then, in a sort of coda, Freud built on an idea first suggested by the scholar Ludwig Jekels: that Shakespeare's characters are often split into two people, and one can't be explained in full without the other. "Together they exhaust the possibilities of reaction to the crime," wrote Freud of the psychotic Scots, "like two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality, and it may be that they are both copied from the same prototype."

I have no idea whether director Rob Melrose conceived his version of Macbeth with this essay open on his nightstand, but Sigmund Freud's ghost haunts Cutting Ball Theater's production with far greater persistence than Banquo's. Before the play even begins, our eyes are greeted with an intensely psychological space. Set designer Michael Locher's trim, brightly lit, white performing area bordered by five white doors brings Being John Malkovich (or a padded cell) more readily to mind than a wind-swept and craggy Scottish moor. Here, doors are portals into Macbeth's mind, and barring perhaps one scene, the rendering pays little attention to what's going on in the outside world.

Stuck in his own head the whole time, Garth Petal's ambitious thane is, not surprisingly, on the brink of mental collapse. At one moment jumping up and down on the furniture in a state of explosive excitement, and the next frozen in petrified contemplation, Petal's Macbeth begins to exhibit many of the characteristics associated with bipolar disorder not long after he first sees daggers before him. As the drama unfolds, the actor's physiognomy changes with almost every passing second, as if it's made of wax, like the face of a Dali clock. It's not for nothing that this king's throne is a wheelchair.

Contrastingly, Paige Rogers' Lady Macbeth is even-keeled and purposeful. Her mouth and gaze set tight, she's not much given to bouts of hysteria. Even the business of scrubbing her hands in her sleep to try to wash away the guilt of her crimes feels systematic, poised. Whether mourning the memory of her dead child while standing next to an empty crib, waiting passively for her husband's return from the battlefield, or plotting to kill the king, she's as ashen-faced and expressionless as a china doll. Her actions almost feel premeditated, as if they're driven by some deep, primeval force beyond her powers of comprehension.

Together, the couple embodies Jekels/Freud's notion of two halves of the same whole. Melrose's interpretation of the witches makes this idea explicit: The "secret, black, and midnight hags" are carbon copies of Macbeth. Three male actors dressed in identical military garb to that of Macbeth say the witches' lines while grotesquely mimicking his gestures. Often Lady Macbeth, standing impassive on the sidelines, joins them, quietly reeling off the witches' warped prophecies as if the plot to put Macbeth on the throne was her idea. Not only does Melrose conceive of the witches as fragments of Macbeth's self, or perhaps figments of his imagination, but in putting many of their lines in Lady Macbeth's mouth, he also suggests that the Macbeths combined represent some kind of violent, unstoppable will, collectively bulldozing their way to disaster.

Despite the couple's oneness, Melrose's interpretation sees the lack of an heir as the driving force behind their killing spree. It's not an original reading: The theme of childlessness has been emphasized in numerous other productions. Writing about Adrian Noble's 1986 version for the U.K.'s Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, critic Michael Billington dubbed the actors portraying the two characters as "a childless Strindbergian couple for whom power became a substitute for parenthood."

In Cutting Ball's version, the famous opening lines are not recited, as is traditional, by three hunchbacked, cackling hags dancing around a steaming cauldron, but divided between Macbeth and his wife, as she gently cradles a dead baby in her arms. In Melrose's radical reinterpretation of the scene, the words "When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" is a statement about a broken family, a disaster from which much of the rest of the action springs. To emphasize the point, this speech is repeated three times during the course of the play. Barrenness is explicit in Lady Macbeth's solitary crib-side scenes and in the schlock-horror moment when Banquo's ghost (Banquo, before Macbeth killed him, was a Scottish lord and Macbeth's friend) sits down to a dinner of roasted fetus; it's equally implied in the powerful image of a dismembered red branch visible behind the open doors after the murder of Duncan (the king of Scotland, the first of Macbeth's victims) and the hollow knocking sound heard intermittently throughout.

I cannot say for sure that Melrose intended all the Freudian references, but even if he didn't, the resonance is strong, in places heavy-handed. Still, this Macbeth is intriguing, intellectually involving, visually imaginative, and -- best of all -- funny. Petal is a formidable presence onstage. He brings out, with impeccable comic timing, the dark humor in his character. Cavorting about in his Second World War soldier's uniform, he sometimes resembles Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. It's an enthralling performance, if perhaps a little too much -- it can be hard to keep up with the actor's constant changes of emotion.

If the production falls on its sword in any way, it's from that very problem: Between the symbolism of dead children, doors, trees, mirrors, knocking, etc., and the 1940s period costuming (which feels somewhat unsubstantiated and superimposed), there are just too many ideas to grasp. The casting only exacerbates the confusion. The decision to use only six actors works, to a degree: Having each cast member play several roles cleverly emphasizes the work's internal landscape. But if you don't know Macbeth very well, it's easy to get lost. Actors jump from part to part with little to indicate they've changed roles. As a result, the overwhelming sweep of Shakespeare's most relentlessly action-packed tragedy is constantly being interrupted while we figure out who's onstage.

If Freud were alive today, he'd probably tell the deep-thinking director to get out of his own head. Melrose's Macbeth is deliciously brainy -- and I mean that in both a literal and a figurative sense: It's full of clever-clever ideas, and it exists mostly in the space between Macbeth's ears.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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