Arts theater review

Shakespeare’s Gunpowder Plot twist

Modern verse translation of ‘Macbeth’ brings same magic with updated vocabulary

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Hecate (Paige Clark) meets with Weird Sister (Jade Guerra) in 'Macbeth.'
Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Written by William Shakespeare, in a modern verse translation by Migdalia Cruz
Directed by Dawn M. Simmons
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
The United Parish in Brookline
Sept. 26–Nov. 11

Last week, I urged you to see the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Equivocation, in which Shakespeare is commissioned to write a propaganda play about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and instead delivers Macbeth. Now you can see the result of his commission! ASP’s production of Macbeth is the world premiere of a new verse translation by Migdalia Cruz, and it features some of the same powerhouses who star in Equivocation.

Before you get the wrong idea, this is not a SparkNotes rendition of the Scottish Play, nor is it a hip, new adaptation set in the Bronx or L.A. It is the result of a concerted effort on the part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to translate Shakespeare’s 39 plays into contemporary English. The plays retain 80 percent of their original text, with modifications focused on elucidation rather than reinterpretation. In an interview with Shakespeare & Beyond, Cruz describes how she taught herself to use iambic pentameter and other techniques favored by Shakespeare. From there, she added some poetic flairs that she felt were in his spirit, like having Queen Hecate and King Duncan, both royalty, speak simply and directly in rhymed couplets.

The quality of acting by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project is rarely surpassed in Boston, and with Cruz working closely with ASP during rehearsals, her vision comes alive in this production. King James I of England would have been overjoyed if he had seen the performance by the three witches in this play. The Weird Sisters were featured prominently, both in script and in presence. To Cruz, they “have never seemed like old crones,…but rather strong, psychic beings with overwhelming sexual attraction — and that’s why men are so afraid of them.” ASP costume designers hit the mark with the witches’ disheveled, sylvan garb, and the cast plays up the part with unearthly cackles and a disconcerting tendency to blow each other kisses. Cruz also adapted the witches’ songs, which were beautiful but seemed startlingly contemporary among the Scottish pennants and curved daggers.

Although I wouldn’t want to meet the witches in foul or fair weather, I’d take them any day over Lady Macbeth (Paige Clark) in a foul mood. Clark was powerful and magnetic as Lady Macbeth. Her steely resolve to see Macbeth (Nael Nacer) succeed packed the punch behind her furious line of “men are weak.” What is more seldom portrayed in productions of Macbeth, and what Clark and Nacer conveyed exceptionally well, is the genuine love and passion between Macbeth and his wife. This mutual affection was demonstrated not only with lavish embraces, but with the looks of solicitous attention that Lady Macbeth would cast on her husband and the trusting way in which Macbeth heeded his wife’s counsel. The strength of the initial attachment makes it all the more telling when we see the coldness between the two of them appear and grow in the second act.

Nacer delivers a strong performance of a good man who succumbs to the siren call of power. The heart weeps to witness him become a paranoid tyrant who orders the execution of whole families as a matter of expediency. When Maurice Parent takes the stage as Banquo’s ghost, one is not surprised that Macbeth can get no sleep — Banquo’s loathing and accusation is written in bold on Parent’s face, and a chill descends upon the already cold church interior.

While Steven Barkhimer played a rather subdued King Duncan, he showcased his talent in a small but rewarding way. He also played the Porter at the gate in one of the only scenes to feature comic relief in an otherwise rather heavy play. Barkhimer took a scene that, in my opinion, normally comes across as a bit grotesque and not very funny and spun it into a jocular interlude with deft comedic timing. However, Cruz must be given at least equal credit for the scene. In an interview with Shakespeare & Beyond, Cruz states that it was “quite a puzzle trying to work out all the jokes, puns, and sexual innuendo of this scene” in order to translate it into modern English.

To give you a taste of what the translation looks like, here are a few lines from this scene in the original play:

knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of
Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you'll sweat for't.

And here is the Cruz’s translation:

Knock, knock, knock. Who i’th’ name of Beelzebub is there?
Here’s a greedy farmer, who tripled his prices, then hanged himself when the grain became cheap: come in, Father Time; have hankerchiefs about you for here you’ll sweat like hell.

While the original text does take slightly longer to chew on, is it really that inaccessible? That is for the viewer to decide. Perhaps reading the play is one thing, and hearing the actors speak in quick succession with no pauses is another. It would seem that this approach to bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century makes a lot more sense than simply transplanting the same speeches into a modern-day setting, as some adaptations are wont to do.

After having seen both Equivocation and Macbeth, it became evident where the inspiration for the pairing came from. Seeing the plays in close succession enhances the experience, and with only a couple weeks left, you don’t want to miss out!