Stirring ‘Macbeth’ makes DMV proud

Stirring ‘Macbeth’ makes DMV proud
Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the play.(Photo/Marc Brenner)

By Mark Edelman

Simon Godwin’s estimable production of “Macbeth” has taken DMV audiences by storm, securing Shakespeare Theatre Company’s position as one of our community’s cultural treasures.

Landing leading actors like Ralph Fiennes, an Academy Award-nominee for “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient,” along with “Game of Thrones” star Indira Varma was no mean feat. Getting great performances out of these gifted actors and a remarkable ensemble bodes well for Godwin’s trajectory as a more than worthy successor to STC’s first artistic director Michael Kahn.

The excitement of this production begins the moment audiences arrive at a massive sound stage: Frankie Bradshaw and her talented team have created a war-time dead zone in the “lobby” of the space. Blasted out vehicles, destroyed trees, the sound of choppers and jets flying overhead and bombs bursting in the distance fill the smoky space with gloom.

The martial setting is apt, after all, because this is a play about war and death. After Macbeth (Fiennes) wins a battle, three witches foretell his succession to more honors, including the throne. This sets in motion a blood-soaked campaign – aided and abetted by his Lady (Varma) – to make it look like a couple of guards murdered King Duncan (Keith Fleming) while he slept in Casa Macbeth.

Duncan’s son Malcolm (Ewan Black, with the best Scottish brogue of the bunch) and fellow nobleman Macduff (Ben Turner) smell a rat and take off to England to organize an army against Macbeth. This sends Macbeth on a paranoia-infused tirade, as he kills his old comrade in arms Banquo (a stalwart Steffan Rhodri) and anyone else in his way until Malcolm returns to avenge his father and take back his rightful crown amidst a body count that rivals a Coen brothers flick.

Nobody performs the Bard better than the Brits, and these U.K. players are all top drawer. Language and diction are crystal clear – hats off to sound designer Christopher Shutt and the folks at Sound Quiet Time for getting that right. Emily Burns’ adaptation proceeds nicely. Some purists will miss a speech, character or scene: My companion bemoaned the deletion of the “knock, knock” monologue in Act 2 Scene 3 and the witch goddess, Hecate.

But those are minor infractions when compared to the strength and ultimate ferocity of this “Macbeth.”

Stand-outs in this fine ensemble include Varma, of course, Turner, Black, Rebecca Scroggs as Lady Macduff in a harrowing scene and those three witches, styled as street urchins. Lucy Mangan, Daniella Fiamanya and Lola Shalam are appropriately creepy.

If there are qualms to be had with this production, it may be the sterility of the first few scenes. Though there’s plenty of bodily fluid to go around, the opening seemed a bit bloodless. Brightly lit on a large stage, the scenes failed to carry through the war torn pre-show that immersed us as we entered. In his first encounter with the witches, Fiennes registers not much more than curious surprise and even some skepticism, until that first prophecy turns out to be true.

Nonetheless, the pace and passion picks up as Fiennes’ Macbeth grows less and less attached to reality and Lady Macbeth can’t get out those damned spots. In a touching moment that moved me to tears, Macduff silently processes the terrible news that his innocent wife and children have been slaughtered by Macbeth’s henchmen “not for their own demerits, but for mine.” In more than 2,000 lines of dialogue, it was Macduff’s quiet grief that carried the heaviest load for me.

Even more sadly, you probably can’t get tickets to this sold out engagement; but, TodayTix runs a daily lottery for remaining seats at $20 per. This bodes well for Washington, D.C. theater, perhaps finally recovered from the pandemic. Once again, you need to queue up for seats to major events like “Macbeth” and our other theater companies around town.

Or as Lady Macbeth would put it, “screw your courage to the sticking place” and buy those tickets!

The writer is a playwright who loves writing about theater. He is a lifetime member of the Broadway League and a Tony voter.