Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Quintessence sets the stage for a sympathetic villain

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 4/4/24

No matter the staging, Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is elusive. Always, you struggle with the absurd, nagging sympathy you feel for a blood-drenched tyrant.

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Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Quintessence sets the stage for a sympathetic villain


No matter the staging, Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is elusive. Always, you struggle with the absurd, nagging sympathy you feel for a blood-drenched tyrant. Why do you feel any sympathy at all? The radically visual production now running at Quintessence Theatre dazzles you with eye-catching fireworks that reflect "Macbeth's" core ambiguity.

Give high marks to Director Alex Burns and crew for atmospheric intensity. Set, sound and dramatic light design make you feel the shadowy chill of  Macbeth's castle. Other times, you are alone on the Scottish heath with the Weird Sisters, shrouded specters with eerie masks and claw-like hands, who appear and disappear in puffs of smoke.

The Weird Sisters are attention-grabbers with their stylish poses and rhythmic movement, as though the spooky verve of their rhyming couplets compels them to dance. "Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air." You are gape-mouthed in attention. But what does a staging that appeals to exotica and arresting visual set-ups tell you about tyrant Macbeth and the effect he has on us? 

Shakespeare created other tyrants – Iago, Richard III, Edmund – comparatively one-dimensional characters driven by greed and ambition who rejoice in cruelty and cleverness. You feel gratified when they go belly-up. Macbeth is different in an unsettling way: Macbeth is the most murderous of all, yet he is not determinedly evil. 

To see "Macbeth" as a cautionary tale that shows the tragic flaw of unchecked ambition is a bad-faith argument. Would Macbeth have turned into a tyrant if the Weird Sisters had not prophesied, had Duncan not named Malcolm his successor, and had Macbeth not written to Lady Macbeth?

Macbeth and his Lady 

As Macbeth, Daniel Miller is a virile presence. He under emotes many of the lines, a welcome relief from the bombast of Macbeth actors eager to sport their creativity. You learn a lot about Macbeth through physical posture, though you wish Miller showed more commitment to the spoken word at certain moments. 

Veteran Shakespearean actor Scott Parkinson plays Lady Macbeth. Your need for verisimilitude is put to the test. Not only is the character a woman, (the cast is all male), but Parkinson is noticeably older than Miller. You struggle to see the character as Macbeth's mate. 

But Parkinson is so spot-on you accept the gender-bender gambit. Sometimes mishandled as a snake-in-the-grass woman, Parkinson's Lady Macbeth is simply being true to self. She has a gentle side ("I have given suck...") and only "unsexes" herself to do what is needed in her wicked, loving way. 

 And what is needed, according to Lady Macbeth, is to shape deeds to perfectly conform with passion. Lady Macbeth looks at her husband attentively, not to manipulate but to merge souls. Parkinson elicits one of the play's disturbing truths: The Macbeths are true lovers who bend to the will of the other, placing the "good" of authentic love in the service of doing evil.  

Interpretation by default 

The great achievement of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is that you always leave the theater feeling uneasy about the measure of goodwill you feel for a murdering tyrant. It asks questions about good and evil, and about free will versus fate, but declines easy answers. Veteran actor Christopher Patrick Mullen excels as Duncan, underscoring the kings' honor and freedom from duplicity.  

At the same time the "good" people in "Macbeth" are nondescript, so insouciant and bland only the savagery of Macbeth stirs them to act. Shakespeare's play is more modern than we are in rejecting the certitude of moralistic reckoning. "Macbeth" is not Manichean in outlook, but good and evil inform each other in a slippery way.

The Quintessence production is sweepingly visual. The witch scenes are colorful. Master Witch Hecate is so gruesome she is almost comical. At the banquet, the bloody-faced ghost of Banquo roams among the guests. (Banquo is usually invisible.) The corpse of Lady Macbeth is carried across the stage in a glass coffin, ceremonially as in an Italian mourning procession. Even the severed head of Macbeth is laid on stage. Is the Quintessence show just a spectacle?  

It may not be possible for any production to give the definitive interpretation of "Macbeth" when Shakespeare himself is so opaque. A spectacle approach can suggest meaning by default. In this show, "Good" triumphs in that peace returns to Scotland and rightful order is restored. But Macbeth's evil is instrumental to the victory – the irksome grain of sand that creates the pearl – and at the play's end you can almost hear the whoosh of his tortured vitality leaving the stage. 

Did Macbeth create his destiny or was he the victim of fate? He is an active player and we see Macbeth make decisions that create his own ruin. But fate and serendipitous events feel even stronger, and the sumptuous spectacle of the Quintessence show so circumscribes his actions that, for much of the time, Macbeth seems to be watching his life unfold just like the audience.  

Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. "Macbeth" will run through April 21. Tickets available at 215-987-4450.