Among Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is arguably the darkest. (At least, you could make that argument if, like many fans of the Bard, you tend to stick your fingers in your ears and whistle a merry tune anytime somebody tries to remind you that the execrable gorefest Titus Andronicus actually does exist.) Aside from being notoriously cursed, according to backstage lore, the “Scottish play” doesn’t get into much in the way of shades of meaning.
The message is fairly straightforward: Power corrupts. If rewarded, bad deeds almost inevitably lead to worse ones. A guilty conscience may ultimately drive an ambitious person to madness and suicide, but it won’t deter him (or her) from wading ever-deeper into the bloodbath that he (or she) created. Pretty grim stuff, with no real uplift at the end.
Part of the problem with this play is the fact that the earliest extant script was probably just a promptbook, so a lot of the nuance or moral ambiguity that the playwright might originally have accorded the villainous lead couple has been lost to time. The text of Macbeth that remains is unusually short for Shakespeare, cutting to the chase so abruptly that one would think that Hollywood studios had gotten hold of it.
We are told briefly at the outset that Macbeth himself is a brave and noble man, but he succumbs to the three witches’ augury that kingship is in his cards with barely a flicker of ethical qualm. One step on that slippery slope becomes a precipitous plunge into regicide, child-murder and the willingness to plunge an entire kingdom into war. And Lady Macbeth, of course, is even worse, goading her husband on to the dastardly deeds that she lacks the will to undertake personally.
Maybe the real “curse” of putting on a production of Macbeth is figuring out how to make an audience care about such nasty pieces of work as Mr. and Mrs. M., and not just be appalled by them. And yet the play is staged very frequently, and the parts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth much sought-after by top-shelf thespians. Making the play relevant to each new generation as more than a one-dimensional cautionary tale about political ambition presents a challenge to every director who takes it up.
A popular way of addressing that challenge is to make the play more “topical,” setting it in a place and time more contemporary than medieval Scotland in order to emphasize the universality of its message across centuries and cultures. Sometimes that approach proves highly successful, as in the famous WPA version known as the “Voodoo Macbeth,” set in post-Colonial Haiti with an all-black cast directed by Orson Welles. Paul Kassel of the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz takes up the gauntlet with a production of Macbeth opening this Thursday at the campus’ McKenna Theatre that is set amidst the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
“We are setting the play in contemporary times in a Eurasian country embroiled in civil war and foreign occupation,” says the director. “As fresh as if written yesterday, our production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth features contemporary dress, women soldiers and a set that evokes both the Globe Theatre and Tahrir Square. We surround the audience with sights and sounds that evoke modern warfare, while honoring the text of Shakespeare with a talented cast of students.”
One of the aspects of Macbeth that has been open to interpretation over time is the question of whether the three witches are meant to be seen as a vector introducing evil into the world from some supernatural source, or as merely the catalyst that brings the incipient ambition in Macbeth’s heart to the surface as his political prospects begin to improve. There’s also a lot of potentially topical matter in the play’s meditations on what constitutes true masculinity and femininity. What new spin could be put on Lady Macbeth’s passive-aggressive manipulations when set amidst the repressive Shari’a laws of a Muslim country? And are we meant to draw a parallel between Macbeth’s three witches and the three goddesses allowed in the Beta-testing phase of Islam: the so-called Satanic Verses alluded to in the novel that brought down a fatwa on the head of author Salman Rushdie?
Here’s what Kassel has to say about his interpretation of the witches: “In this world there is evil that both influences and prompts acts of evil in others. In our world, however, these forces, these witches, are unseen. Evil can appear anywhere, anytime, and the vain, ambitious, the power-hungry are susceptible.” So it will be interesting to see how the new SUNY production will embody the temptations that draw a resistance leader in the contemporary Middle East – perhaps someone who starts out with good intentions – down the road to a military career in which the ends justify any means, however bloody.
Another note that might play interestingly in such a setting is the fact that Macbeth assassinates Duncan while the king is a guest in his own home. Regicide was seen as bad enough, in a culture where kings were deemed to rule by divine right; but we tend to forget that in Shakespeare’s day, ancient tribal taboos around the subject of hospitality also persisted in the public consciousness. Killing someone who had invoked your shelter was tantamount to thumbing your nose at the gods. That sacredness of hospitality is certainly still a keystone of some Middle Eastern cultures today.
So Kassel’s choice of approach certainly provides a lot of grist for the interpretation mill, and the Macbeth that you can see at SUNY-New Paltz over the new two weeks should make us think about this familiar play in ways that we haven’t had reason to do before. And that can’t be a bad thing at all. This production, described as a “progressive adaptation,” opens Friday, November 29 and runs through Sunday, December 9. Tickets can be purchased at the Parker Theatre box office and online; prices are $18 for general admission, $16 for seniors, SUNY faculty/staff and non-SUNY students and $10 for SUNY students.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, November 29, 30, December 1, 6, 7, 8, 8 p.m., December 2, 9, 2 p.m., $18/$16/$10, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz; (845) 257-3880, www.newpaltz.edu/theatre.