THEATER REVIEW In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Madness — and magenta-haired witches — abound in Shakespeare Ensemble’s superb production of Macbeth


Directed by Lance Norris

October 28–30,
November 3–5

La Sala de Puerto Rico, MIT Student Center

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of Macbeth summons such a strange intensity that the suspension of disbelief is hardly “willing”: we have no choice as the audience but to accept the truth of the tragedy taking place before us and partake viscerally in the trials of its characters.

The story is familiar. Two generals, returning home from battle, are waylaid by three witches, who pronounce to one: “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” To the other, they prophecize: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”

The plot of Macbeth is only the fulfillment of these prophecies. Yet the play is captivating, even enthralling, for we must consider what seems to be a deep conflict between the force of human will, especially the malicious power of Lady Macbeth, and the fatalistic world where the entire tragedy of Macbeth is predicted by the witches and enacted, much to their amusement.

It is that quality of inevitability that propels director Lance Norris’s production forward. We meet Macbeth (Chris Smith ’11) as a triumphant general, his masculinity reassuring as a beacon of wholesomeness and stability in a bleak surrounding of corpses on the field of battle. We leave Macbeth after his descent into madness and, in the end, his death. A terrific guilt has engulfed his mind. Urged by his wife’s assault on his manliness — “When you durst do it, then you were a man” — he has murdered Duncan, the king of Scotland, and then ordered the slaughter of rival Macduff’s wife, young son, and infant. When Macbeth learns of his wife’s suicide, silence envelops the theater, and we hear a just-perceptible sob. Stunningly, then, he begins laughing crazily, desperately, in a telling confirmation of the wreckage of his humanity.

Lady Macbeth (Katherine A. Roe ’14) immediately demonstrates her ambitious nature: upon learning of the witches’ prediction that Macbeth will be king, she delivers the famous “unsex me here!” soliloquy, addressing the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”: “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood; stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose.”

But we leave her in one of drama’s greatest scenes of debilitating guilt and fear that her part in the murders will be found out. She sleepwalks into a chamber where stand a physician and a waiting-gentlewoman, and begins rubbing her hands, plagued by the hallucination of indelible bloodstains: “Yet here’s a spot”; “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him”; and, climactically: “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand!”

The following words of the doctor strike at the heart of the audience: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

The strongest thread in this staging is the degeneration of Macbeth and his Lady into madness. The two students’ commanding performances give a seriousness to the production that prevents the farce sometimes attendant on young people’s performances of Shakespearean tragedy.

An interesting decision on the part of the set designer (Adam K. Strandberg ’14) is in the design of the Macbeth crest, which is dominated by the head of Medusa the Gorgon. Surely, this is a reference to the horror of the slaughtered king Duncan, whose body is discovered by nobleman Macduff (Keenan A. Sunderwirth ’14) who proclaims, “Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight with a new Gorgon.” More widely, the reference is to the horror of Macbeth’s tyranny.

The actors are not the only excellent part of the production. The combination of the sound (Christopher D. Smith ’12) and lighting (Elaine M. Kung ’15) schemes lend immediacy to the setting, chill castles and grim battlefields alike. Indeed, the transformation of the lofty and open La Sala de Puerto Rico into an intimate theater space is itself notable, as is, the success of the stage manager’s (Kellas R. Cameron ’10) and set designer’s demarcation between the outside world of the Student Center, perfumed with Subway sandwiches, and the inside world of Macbeth — supernatural, tragic, and populated with grotesque apparitions and magenta-haired witches.