Of the tragedies written by William Shakespeare, Macbeth is one of the most haunting. Right away, the opening scene sets the stage for the dark, supernatural elements that make this story so affecting.
Beginning in a misty moor, a trio of witches whisper into a boiling cauldron: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” and foresee a prophecy that will change the course of a man’s life. Tempted by the prophecy that he will become the Scottish king, Macbeth and his wife plot to overtake the throne by murdering the reigning King Duncan.
The story follows Macbeth and his wife’s rise to power, the brutal consequences of their decisions and their inevitable downfall. Rich with tragic irony, Shakespeare’s shortest surviving play delves into the darkest aspect of human emotion: the loss of morality.
Macbeth has been performed in playhouses around the world in a far-reaching theatrical history, and now it’s coming to Asheville’s North Carolina Stage Company. The play’s director, Ron Bashford, has worked on eight productions with Charlie Flynn-McIver, NC Stage’s artistic director. Bashford directed NC Stage’s award-winning performance of Hamlet, and he says he revels in the challenge of directing Shakespearean work.
Bashford is taking a fresh approach to the staging of this production of “the Scottish play”—so called because of the long-held theater superstition that the play is “cursed”—largely due to the limitations of performing such a grand production with a small cast in a relatively confined space.
“I’m focusing on the psychology behind the script: the psychology of murder and the way fear and anxiety play themselves out,” says Bashford. “Macbeth as a character is an overimaginative man. For him, imagination and reality are mixed. That’s why we’ve decided to set the play in a ‘black void’ [there are few props and no backdrops to the set]. The confines of the stage, like Macbeth’s psychological state, know no boundaries.”
The NC Stage is a “black box” theater where the audience sits only feet away from the performers. Used properly, this setting can create an emotionally charged atmosphere, something that Bashford gladly turns to his advantage in this psychologically chilling production. Without talented actors, however, it is impossible to create a true sense of haunted foreboding.
“The cast drives this production,” says Flynn-McIver. Ever the craftsman, McIver explains that there’s more at work in NC Stage’s Macbeth than just a straightforward production. For instance, the actors are not only in front of the audience; they’re also behind them, creating the soundtrack in the play. When an owl hoots, an actor is cooing from the back of the room. The cast will also be using flashlights to light the stage, placing an emphasis on faces and the emotion of the actors instead of their bodies and costumes.
“Flashlights are unpredictable and unsettling for the audience,” explains Bashford. “It sets the mental stage for the play. As a society we understand narrative, but it’s only one-dimensional. This theater breaks that. We’re using the space to create dimensional surprise: a sense of immediacy.”
This performance of Macbeth also focuses on an often underexplored aspect of the play: the loss of love and connection between a husband and wife. The murder of King Duncan drives Macbeth and his wife apart in an act Bashford calls “tragic irony.”
“They commit the murder together and it destroys their marriage,” he says. “In the end, they die alone and apart. Macbeth goes into his final battle knowing that his wife has killed herself, and he recites one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow …’ a quote that reflects the futility of life.”
Bashford also notes that by establishing two murderous protagonists, Shakespeare made an interesting and very intentional choice, one that reflects the greater lessons of his script.
“We are meant to feel close to them [Macbeth and his wife] though they fall into moral corruption,” he says. “In growing attached to these characters we undergo an intense examination of human nature. They show us an aspect of ourselves. [We see the effects of] losing one’s moral way and what it does to the mind.”
In this way Macbeth becomes a story of individual transformation: a fall from grace. More than just a script about good and evil, Macbeth is a classic tale of human choice, morality and consequences.
“There’s a level of abandon in Shakespeare’s writing,” says Jenn Miller Cribbs, who plays the role of Lady Macbeth. “The writing will take you where you need to go.”
To truly understand those words, however, it helps to see them in the format Shakespeare originally envisioned. As Cribbs points out: “Shakespeare is meant to be heard; his work is meant for the stage.”
what: The classic tale of fate, murder and retribution
where: North Carolina Stage Company (15 Stage Lane, off Walnut St.)
when: Wednesday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Nov. 4 (7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $15-$25. www.ncstage.org or 350-9090)