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Wartime ‘Macbeth’ smolders at Shakespeare Theatre Company

From left: Indira Varma (Lady Macbeth) and Ralph Fiennes (Macbeth) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Director Simon Godwin’s smoldering wartime version of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” featuring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, continues its run at a Washington, D.C. warehouse through May 5—the production’s only U.S. staging following runs in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh.


Adapted by Emily Burns to a modern setting, this “Macbeth,” hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), includes embattled soldiers in combat fatigues, the piercing roar of jet planes and Scottish nobility in suits rather than kilts.


Ralph Fiennes (Macbeth) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

The Macbeths’ home, where much of the play is set, is also modern (both set and costume design by Frankie Bradshaw)—bleakly constructed of concrete and metal, with a frosted-glass sliding door at the top of a wide staircase.


Even before seeing the stage, audience members traverse a smoky, dimly-lit warzone with stationed soldiers, both weary and wary, and a car ominously burning. The sounds (designed by Christopher Shutt) of invisible fighter jets occasionally rip overhead.

This foreboding atmosphere makes palpable “the fog and filthy air” alluded to by the three “weird” Witches (Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan and Lola Shalam) who open the play seemingly shell-shocked, wearing modern, sooty, mismatched clothes, as they portentously rhyme about Macbeth.


From left: Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan and Lola Shalam (Witches) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

The Witches seem like real young women rather than stereotypical hags, their voices calm rather than shrill, their metaphysical aura aided by echoing mics and lighting (effectively designed by Jai Morjaria to also sometimes sweep starkly over the audience like searchlights).


So begins Shakespeare’s bloody tale of the unquenchable thirst for power, unbearable weight of guilt and inexorable hand of fate. The acting here is as formidable as the staging, each player delivering Shakespeare’s lines clearly and with depth of meaning, such that characters reveal themselves not just in words and action, but intonation and inflection.


When Macbeth (Fiennes) and Banquo (an impressive Steffan Rhodri) enter on a heath and hear the witches’ “strange” portent that Macbeth will become a thane and then king, yet Banquo will bear kings, we sense Macbeth’s odd uncertainty (despite his purported battle heroics) in contrast to Banquo’s stout strength.


Indira Varma (Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Back home, Lady Macbeth (Varma) insists Macbeth act like a “man” in continuing his rise to power by murdering King Duncan at their home, her resolve shining forth through a sharp, clear tone—her words interestingly couched in references to her own female body—and quick, decisive mannerisms, while Macbeth slouches and hesitates.


Varma absolutely owns her role throughout, confidently embodying the well-heeled Lady Macbeth with a poised yet sprightly regality, commanding her husband with just the right modulation and lithely bounding up and down the concrete stairs.

From left: Ralph Fiennes (Macbeth) and Indira Varma (Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Later, after more blood has been spilled in the pursuit of power, Varma immerses herself in Lady Macbeth’s breakdown, obsessively writhing her sullied hands to be rid of the “damned spot”—those words here whispered, or perhaps hissed—guilty secrets escaping her lips unaware.


And Fiennes as her husband (the two have great chemistry) is a perfect foil, not opposite in energy but with an equally physical yet withholding intensity that matches Varma’s open expressiveness.


Macbeth soliloquizes about his fears and doubts, imagining a murdering dagger in the air that he cannot quite grasp, hesitating when it is time to execute Duncan, and later feeling overly proud of his own secret plan to murder Banquo and his son Fleance (Ethan Thomas) that gets botched.

From left: Ben Allen (Ross), Indira Varma (Lady Macbeth), Rose Riley (Menteith), Richard Pepper (Lennox), Steffan Rhodri (Banquo) and Levi Brown (Angus) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

When the newly royal couple hold a feast that very night, Fiennes makes Macbeth’s feigned joviality amusing through a couple of fluid dance steps so contrasting his otherwise controlled tenseness as to inspire laughs.


That difference in demeanor—and his physically tormented reaction to seeing Banquo’s ghost at the feast, which Lady Macbeth amusingly tries to pass off as a normal “fit”—heightens our awareness of how Macbeth is cracking under the weight of his deeds, making believable his later nervy reactions to learning that English forces are amassing in Birnam Wood against his tyranny.

Ralph Fiennes (Macbeth) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

All the actors (the same cast as the British stagings, mostly) bring nuance to their roles, however minor. Jonathan Case as Macbeth’s servant Seyton is believably natural warning Lady MacDuff that she and her children are Macbeth’s targets, and when delivering bad news to Macbeth about his wife.


And the two murdering goons Macbeth hires to do his dirty work (Michael Hodgson and Jake Neads) are expressive in their physically demanding roles, including becoming bodily possessed by the Witches’ prophesying spirits.

Ben Turner (Macduff) in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Though a couple of scenes near the beginning feel a bit stiff, as does a later extended discussion between Duncan’s orphaned son Malcolm (Ewan Black) and newly widowed MacDuff (a well-cast Ben Turner)—which is noticeably lacking in movement or music (fittingly composed by Asaf Zohar, but perhaps underutilized)—those are anomalies in an otherwise flowing production.


The overall excellent acting and creative staging—culminating in combat soldiers behind branches from Birnam Wood storming down the aisles to engage in a swordfight full of light, sound and smoke effects—artfully meld to make this “Macbeth” an ambitious and uniquely immersive experience.


“Macbeth” continues in a warehouse at 1301 W St. NE, Washington, D.C., through May 5, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays. For tickets and more information, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company box office at (202) 547-1122 or visit Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.




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