If you are a regular theatergoer you’ve probably seen Macbeth. Possibly multiple times. Possibly too many times. But a director with a vision can make a particular production stand out from all the others in your memory. All it takes is some ambition. And Samantha Van Der Merwe is nothing if not ambitious. But if Macbeth teaches us nothing, it’s that ambition can come at a price.
Walking into Shaking the Tree it’s immediately obvious that Van Der Merwe has a strong vision for the show. Instead of filling up her cavernous warehouse space she pulls in, creating an intimate theater-in-the-round. Four huge paper screens intersect in the middle of the white stage, cutting it into quadrants. It’s an immediately intriguing image.
Van Der Merwe’s concept is one out of time and place. It’s that futuristic yet ancient minimalist aesthetic that feels familiar yet oddly alien. Inventive use of lighting and sound do a lot of heavy lifting in this show. There’s almost no furniture or props, and the color palette is black and white with occasional splashes of dark red. The concept embraces the performative, combining nicely with Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy and direct address.
When pushed up against the edges of the space the screens become panels for simple yet effective shadow projections. But when used for castle interiors their opaque nature means that actors’ shadows can be seen through them, creating striking visuals. This is Van Der Merwe’s central imagery: light and shadow.
Unlike a lot of gimmicks directors throw onto Shakespeare, this concept works well with the dichotomies of the script: the starkness between the ordered reality of Macbeth’s world and the mystical chaos of the witches; the public-facing personas of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their secretive murderous scheming; and those who rule through order and those who rule by tyranny (timely).
To complete the aesthetic the actors all wear matching long gray tunics, like uniforms, with scarves used to differentiate characters, and sit onstage when not performing. The denial of the illusion of theater.
Laudably, Van Der Merwe has cast a fairly diverse group of actors across age, sex, and race. This aesthetic naturally lends itself to this kind of casting, but I appreciate when a director makes an effort to do this.
But there are times when the concept and its design elements don’t quite work.
One of the challenges of watching Macbeth is that a lot of characters show up once, possibly twice, and then disappear. The doubling of the cast combined with the limits of the costuming means it can be impossible to figure out who some of the minor characters are unless you are very familiar with the play.
Additionally, guards and servants are nearly indistinguishable from nobles, which undermines the strict hierarchies that these characters inhabit, and which Macbeth himself seeks to climb and control.
The screens create some striking visuals, but there are a few moments where their positioning and lack of lighting angles obscures actors for too long. While this never affects the whole audience at once, it feels jarring if you end up in a temporary blind spot.
The performative aesthetic, which unifies the production, doesn’t come through in all the performances. Some deliveries feel affected and deliberate while others feel more classical and theatrical. This tension creates a slight incongruity to the show.
Jamie M. Rea brings that affected deliberateness to her Macbeth. It’s in line with the aesthetic, but it never quite feels like she is Macbeth, rather she is preforming the character. She has some strong moments; particularly the banquet scene when the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth (which is impressively staged). But it puts the show at a disadvantage to keep so much distance between the audience and the protagonist.
On the more classically theatrical side of the performances, Sam Dinkowitz brings a visceral emotion to Macbeth’s rival Macduff. Dinkowitz’s performance is raw but eloquent, and when he speaks it’s easy to believe that he is Macduff.
There’s a pleasure to this kind of performance. It reminds you of Shakespeare’s mastery of language and that perhaps the text resists a director’s concept.
Interestingly, the most ambitious gamble Van Der Merwe makes is deciding not to cut the script. Macbeth is the shortest tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s without any “extraneous” scenes. For people who appreciate soaking in every single word of Shakespeare in his unadulterated glory, this will be appealing. For others, it will create lulls in the show.
Van Der Merwe’s ambition is to be admired. She’s created a visually striking production of a play done so often it’s easy to forget, making it feel alive and relatable without coming across as heavy-handed. It may not all come together perfectly, or it may come together in a way that won’t appeal to every one, but it’s bold and not easy to forget.
Shaking the Tree’s Macbeth continues through March 17. Ticket and schedule information here.