Folger Theatre’s New Production is Definitely Not Your Father’s “Macbeth”

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By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

“Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Folger Theatre’s restoration period adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” by William Davenant, written 350 years ago, turns all the versions of this venerable play I have seen in my lifetime upside down. I think its lots of dark fun and certainly engendered a broader understanding of the plotline of “Macbeth” and made me look at it in a fresh, new way. I have seen countless versions of Shakespeare’s version, not to mention Verdi’s operatic version, but being able to see how Davenant approached his production lo those many years ago, in 1664, and to hear how the music might have sounded during his time, gives me a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare’s version of “Macbeth”.

Folger Theatre has, for this production, joined with the Folger Consort, an estimable early-music chamber group, making this a very special show, indeed! The varied types of music showcase beautifully the Consort’s consummate musicianship. Also, this production is running for only three weeks because it’s part of the Consort’s season, not Folger’s. Thus, “Macbeth” is an add-on to the Folger season. Lucky us!

Lady Macbeth (Kate Eastwood Norris) calls on spirits to “unsex me here” in Davenant’s Restoration-era adaptation of Macbeth. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Why did I like it, you ask? First, the director Robert Richmond set it in Bedlam Insane Asylum, a dreadful institution where people were incarcerated for a variety of mental and social issues. It was built in London over a sewer (I didn’t make that up!), and as you can imagine, this is where the word bedlam originated. Bedlam was the last place you would ever want to be. Imagine setting “Macbeth” in the middle of the chaos and noise of a mental institution, where the costumes, which were originally made for perfectly fine streetwear in the late 1600’s, are so crusty and filthy, it looks as if they had been worn for years non-stop! Mariah Anzaldo Hale, the costumer, did an extremely convincing job. And the inmates have taken over the asylum!

The witches (l to r: Ethan Watermeier, Emily Noël, and Rachael Montgomery) at work over Duncan’s (Louis Butelli) body in Davenant’s Restoration-era adaptation of Macbeth. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Secondly, and more importantly, you should know that this production was written (as one of many during that period) expressly to entice people in the 17th century to come back to the theatre after the monarchy was restored following the civil wars in England, and the great fire of London, both of which closed down the theatres for almost 20 years. So yes, Davenant did what any savvy theatrical producer/writer would do, give the audience something old, but newly adapted and more cutting edge (he thought) to bring them back. He had to work with older plays, since very little was written for the theatre while they were closed, hence his selection of a highly regarded Shakespearean play.

And what did he think the newly reopened theatres needed? That would be the theatre he had seen in Paris—exciting productions with singing, music, dancing, and real women on stage– (Uh, really? Yes! Previously, women were mostly played by men in women’s costumes and wigs). All of these new ideas were interwoven into the plays written about this time. And since the plays of Shakespeare were widely revered, why not add a little pizzazz to a proven property? Hence, what we have in this Folger production is (give or take a witch in drag and the fact that it’s set in Bedlam Insane Asylum instead of the usual Macbeth family castle) a slightly abbreviated text of “Macbeth” with the addition of some pretty wild and crazy ideas. With the imaginative wig designs by Paul Huntley, I felt as if might have stumbled onto the set of “Sweeny Todd” on steroids!

Lady Macduff (Karen Peakes) and Fleance (Owen Peakes) find themselves in Bedlam asylum in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The actors, very capably led by Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth and Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth, are all extremely well-cast! Karen Peakes, as Lady Macduff gets a much larger and more sympathetic role in this production, as opposed to Shakespeare’s. BTW, she is also Ian Peakes’ wife. Macduff’s son is played by Owen Peakes. He is Ian and Karen’s actual son and he’s quite an actor. “The apple doesn’t fall”….well, you know. I smell “new acting dynasty”! However, one of the witches, hilariously played by Ethan Watermeier, almost steals the show. These folks are also not your old idea of witches! They get to sing and dance. And at the top of the second act in an extended scene, they show off those chops to great advantage. Emily Noёl, a witch and a marvelous soprano (I know, I know!), gets to sing some very lovely Baroque sounding John Eccles’ (ca. 1668-1735) music. Since the play is set in the mid-1600’s, that music is perfect. A little odd-sounding to us, because it’s bubbly, even joyful, and it’s sung during some very dark times in the play, but, nonetheless, it sounded just right for this production.

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes, center) explains to the honorable Macduff (Chris Genebach) why he slew Duncan’s chambermen. (Witches Rachael Montgomery and Emily Noël look on.) Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The lighting by Andrew F. Griffin and sound design by Matt Otto in this scene especially, but in the rest of the production too, totally enhanced the sense of weirdness, as well as the darkness these characters were portraying–very eerie and weirdly right. Creepy! And the set designed by Tony Cisek is stark, sad, and very probably looks much like an insane asylum looked in the 17th century. Scary. You really don’t want to spend a lot of time there.

There was other music as well, from the wonderful 17th century repertoire of English and Scottish country dances and from various Scottish sources of fiddle and bagpipe music. This music enhances the production immeasurably and is heard mainly when the action is out on the moors. Robert Eisenstein, the brilliant music director, said, “We appropriated ‘Moll Peatly’ and a lovely and haunting tune we have come to regard as Lady Macduff’s theme, ‘Long Cold Nights’.”

This entire project was researched and planned for several years with the collaboration of scholars and performers, The Folger Shakespeare Library, the Folger Institute, The Folger Theatre and the Folger Consort. Even so, for some, it has an obvious downside—missing familiar Shakespearean speeches and lines. For my money and for this fascinating production, I consider that “downside” a plus! Many of the speeches are not intact, there is no “Out, out damn spot” and no porter’s scene and such. Many of our beloved lines are among the missing, but the action is still there, and given the insane asylum setting, the chaos and the noise, the missing lines we loved often become even more poignant and meaningful even without hearing them, because everyone in this play is, well, just a little “off”. I’m just sayin’. This imaginative, inventive production is giving us new ways to enjoy an old, dear property. Just relax and enjoy the ride. You’ll never forget it, I guarantee! Five beautiful Zebra stripes up!

Ticket and Performance Information:  “Macbeth” runs through September 23 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E Capitol St., SE, Washington, DC. Running time is about 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission. Visit Folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.