The Scottish Play

One of the things Mom had wanted to do while she and Dad were here was see some theater. So, her birthday present to me was to take us all out to see Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart. When we realized that we had two tickets available, Rob and I invited Rick Bowes and Emily DeCola to accompany us.

All of us agreed that this was the best production of Macbeth we’d ever seen. Start with a good strong cast. Then, my god, give them a production design that is about as close to perfect as anything I’ve seen. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s sharpest plays and this dives right in and cuts.

It’s hard to explain why it’s so good, without spoiling some surprises for people who are planning on seeing this production. So — don’t click on the cut if you don’t want to know. Before I get all private on you…

Thank you Mom and Dad!!!

So. The whole thing was set in an institution, complete with nuns, tile walls and a freight elevator. The stage was largely bare, with some institutional tables that rolled on and a few chairs. Otherwise, bleak.

The first scene is in an operating room, with a dying soldier. The nuns are trying to help the doctor work on him. Scene ends. One of the nuns injects the soldier and he dies. She pulls her operating mask down and says, “When shall we three meet again…”

!!! The three weird sisters !!! I got chills. Emily gasped.

They appeared later as servers in the castle and they almost always had a knife or other blade in their hand. All the way through, it was like that. Simple, beautiful uses of staging and actors to provide sudden moments of chilling horror. Gorgeously done.

The highlight though was Banquo’s death. It happened on a train, created by simply having the actors sit in seats facing each other, within a rectangle of light making the footprint of a railway car. Banquo’s throat is cut and he collapses on the floor.

The scene freezes. Slowly, very deliberately. He stands up, turns, walks through the railway car and disappears into the freight elevator while the cast on the train sings a kyrie. Still singing, they move about onstage, remove their coats and Macbeth is front and center and we’re at his castle preparing for a banquet. He’s not in Banquo’s death scene, but by having him appear out of it, makes you feel his hand on the events so strongly.

They sit, they eat.

The elevator descends. The walls start bleeding (projections) and Banquo is standing there. He comes out of the elevator, walks the length of the table and Macbeth screams. He jumps up, knocking his chair over and– blackout.

Intermission.

My god. I keep saying that. We were all saying that. It was such a powerful, visceral moment.

We return from intermission. The play starts at the top of the banquet scene. They play through all the moments, but play sections of it silently. It worked, you’ll have to trust me. MacBeth sits down, as he did before.

The elevator descends. The walls don’t bleed, Banquo doesn’t walk. But when MacBeth stands up and screams about the vision he’s having– you know. You know exactly what horror he is seeing.

It was amazing. Best vision of Banquo scene I’ve ever witnessed.

The whole play was like that. Surprising, inventing. Using the stage and technology and actors to shake you. Have I mentioned that I loved it?

Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon!

16 Responses

  1. Rick Bowes

    Mary

    Thanks again for inviting me. I believe the wierd sisters were actually dressed as English nurses (who are called “sister”)circa the 1930’s. I liked the Soviet institutional look – everything seemed to be taking place in a dreary hospital basement.

  2. -d-

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. It sounds like it was more fun than having the flu. Wish I could have been there.

  3. Rob Kimbro

    Now I thought you were going to be talking about the Teller production that just ran over in Jersey and is now in DC, I think. There’s a fascinating journal about the making of that show in the “Teller Speaks” section of the Penn and Teller website. Made me wish I could get away to see it.

    But this one sounds fantastic. That may be the best use of the intermission break I’ve ever heard.

      1. Chris Hansen

        It is from the British comedy, Blackadder the Third, “Sense and Sensibility”. Edmund Blackadder is teasing a couple of actors who are very superstitious. A couple of decades ago we transcribed all of the episodes that we got to see and posted them online (eventually). You can read this one at http://blackadder.powertie.org/transcripts/3/4/ but it really doesn’t do it justice; they are well worth watching.

        Incidentally, we debated for quite a while over what they actually said in their superstitious chant. My version is above but the version we started with in the transcript is

        Aahhhhh!
        Hot potato,
        off his drawers,
        pluck to make amends.
        Owwwwww!

        But it didn’t make sense for actors to chant that. Although, on reflection “off his drawers” does rather fit with some of the randier actors I know.