Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Macbeth’ fuses ancient and modern

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Macbeth (Conleth Hill) goes down the path of reckless ambition in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Photo by kevinberne.com)

When it comes time for the banal, yet sanguine pre-show announcement at any theatrical production, it is customary to announce the producing company and the show title with pride. And there were certainly good omens when it came to Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s announcement at their production of “Macbeth.”

Sure, there were the customary pleadings of no cell phone usage because of sound system interference, as well as pleas to learn where the fire exits are. You know, your basic theatre etiquette fare.

But on this particular night, most important of all, when it came time to bellow out the proudly presents part, instead of hearing “Macbeth,” we heard the pre-show announcement lady say, “The Scottish Play.”

This seems to have done the trick about guaranteeing our safety, and giving us the opportunity to see other productions of “Macbeth” well into the future. By not saying that cur-sed name, it pretty much assured us that we would not experience actors in the full throes of an untimely accident, real daggers killing said actors, or full-blown riots taking over the building.

Certainly, “Macbeth” is filled with plenty of lore, tales tall and true. And part of that lore helps give the audience a certain historical context as they watch the story of uninhibited, wieldy ambition.

The Rep’s production of William Shakespeare’s gripping tragedy is fabulous in its visceral beauty, despite some moments of slowness. This is not a bloody and gutty interpretation, but one that is (out out, damned) spotless, a world where the idea of blood trumps the literalness of it.

The play starts off in familiar territory, with three witches presiding over a prophecy – that Macbeth (self-assured Conleth Hill), will ultimately become King, with a queen’s crown in waiting for Lady Macbeth (Powerful and golden-throated Frances McDormand). The ambition inspired by these prophecies are ultimately moved too quickly, with the guilt of deception and murder overtaking the minds of the deceptive monarchs, leading to dire consequences for both.

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Macbeth (Hill) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) delve into ambition and ultimately, madness. (Photo by kevinberne.com)

What is striking about this production is how it fuses both the ancient and the modern. Ever present are Shakespeare’s powerful words, which is more important than anything, and nary a hint of a British accent. But director Daniel Sullivan has other modern and technological touches at his beck, toys he uses incessantly to assist his interpretation of the play.

Sullivan is undoubtedly comfortable in this space, with glorious and subtle elements dotted throughout the piece, working masterfully in nuanced tones. He, along with his creative team, which includes scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt, composition/sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and video designer Alexander V. Nichols bring forth a piece with lots of modern day theatrical touches, with both the heightened regality and sharp baseness of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s productions can often be judged in how some of the bigger moments were handled. The players themselves did not get caught up in being Shakespearean, but rather attacked the language and the character’s intent, which is infinitely more important to the storytelling.

To this end, many of these performances were tight, led by McDormand, who has wonderful command of the meter. Her forcefulness in driving the scene that leads to the death of King Duncan (Bay Area stalwart James Carpenter), one of my favorite scenes of the play, is measured recklessness. Despite the fact that Hill at times was a bit too reserved and milquetoast, both McDormand and Hill drive other moments, namely the powerful return of neck-sliced Banquo (cooly empathetic Christopher Innvar), Lady Macbeth’s tortured sleepwalking and Macbeth’s phantom dagger discovery.

There are also nice turns by Eddie Ray Jackson as Donalbain and Korey Jackson as the fiery Macduff. Scott Coopwood brings forth a strong presence as Lennox.

Where this production is fused so nicely is within the bells and whistles of the Rep’s Roda Theatre space, with phenomenal, crystal clear sound capabilities. Schreier’s sound wastes no time whatsoever in giving the audience plenty of ear candy. The scene that featured a further premonition from the witches was complete 21st century technology led by the Rolls Royce of Nichols’ video work, quite lovely and powerful to behold.

All of these elements have unified the show with zeal. It was also very nice to watch a play about a tragedy that stayed on the stage, without any tragedies off of it.

Thank you for your help with that, Lady Pre-Show Announcement – by the end of the show, you were the real queen.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Macbeth”
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
The Word: A classic play with 21st century modern touches works beautifully in the Rep’s Roda Theatre
Stars: 4 out of 5
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $35 – 145
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

 

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