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article imageReview: Toronto's 'Macbeth' in High Park lacks tragic feeling and scope Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 4, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Nothing undermines a Shakespeare play like a tragic hero who can't arouse your sympathy. And “Macbeth”, in which the title role is a murderous usurper, particularly requires a lead who can charm empathy from an audience, in order for it to work.
Sadly, Hugh Thompson isn't up to the task in the new Canadian Stage outdoor production of Macbeth, which opened in west Toronto last night. It's the first time in its 30-year history that Shakespeare In High Park (formerly Dream In High Park) has tackled a tragedy other than Romeo and Juliet, and this production isn't without its strong moments. But it all comes down to Macbeth himself to pull it all together, and that's where director Ker Wells' version really misses the mark.
Macbeth, as anybody who's passed Grade 11 English should know, is about a medieval Scottish thane (Thompson) who murders his way to royal power after being egged on by the prophecies of three witches and by his sociopathically ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Philippa Domville). But Macbeth's hard-won kingship is short-lived as he gets thwarted not only by his own conscience and paranoia, but by the vengeful sword of exiled thane Macduff (Ryan Hollyman).
Thompson may be a past Gemini- and Merritt Award-winner, but he fails to bring any real subtextual depth or emotional range to the Bard's poetry here. Sometimes it borders on the high-schoolish. He betrays a limited range as he plays guilty, frightened, confused and even pleased with almost the exact same tone and facial expression. Sometimes his line readings pick the weirdest words to accent: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir,” or “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.” (The latter line, just before Macbeth murders King Duncan, is delivered with an oddly casual air, as if he's just heading out to water his daisies.) And even Macbeth himself would recoil at the way Thompson brutally slaughters the famous “Life's but a walking shadow” soliloquy.
As if to show off how miscast Thompson is, Domville shines as the manipulative Lady Macbeth – delivering her lines with a far wider spectrum of dynamics, emotion and meaning. Also standing out in the cast is Hollyman, who brings a believable level of righteous anger to the aggrieved Macduff. (You wonder why Hollyman, or even Domville, couldn't have snagged the lead role instead.) And Kevin MacDonald makes for a likeable and sympathetic Banquo, Macbeth's friend and fellow soldier, although (spoiler alert) in his silent banquet appearance as a ghost, he looks more mildly annoyed at Macbeth than full of wrath from beyond the grave.
But Hume Baugh, who was a cast member in the original 1983 Dream in High Park, needs to adjust his volume and timing as the Porter at Duncan's castle, in the play's sole comic-relief scene. Baugh over-delivers the Porter's drunken monologue, which should be getting more laughs. He fares better in a second role as Angus. But the production's use of many actors in multiple roles may cause small confusion among audience members unfamiliar with the play – or even for those who haven't read it in years.
Aside from the mixed range of performances, the production works best when it shows off Wells' more innovative staging ideas. There are early scenes when actors either freeze or move in slow motion while Macbeth delivers a soliloquy directly to the audience; it's a very cinematic effect, reminiscent of movie or TV characters suddenly breaking the fourth wall. The aforementioned banquet scene is also well staged, making effective use of the trap door underneath the table for Banquo's sudden appearances. The witches are, to say the least, different: they're played by three petite actresses in red shrouds, whose lines often overlap rhythmically.
The best scene happens during Macbeth's second visit with the witches, when he hears new prophecies told by an eerie infant spirit puppet that rises out of a cradle (the front side of which looks curiously like a small tombstone). The spirit speaks in a shrill childlike voice that just teeters on the border between spooky and unintentionally funny; the music and mist help the scene create a creepy mood even while you can see the witches working the puppet. Unfortunately, the doll loses its mystique when it reappears on a side platform, speaking other characters' lines to Macbeth.
You wouldn't think professional Canadian Stage actors would need microphones to deliver their lines, especially in a small, closed-off outdoor venue like the High Park Amphitheatre. But every one of Macbeth's players is fixed with a head mic, as if this were a big Canon Theatre musical. It makes you wonder why some of the actors project their lines theatrically when they don't need to do so, and it also causes distracting technical glitches: there are several moments when two actors speaking close together get caught by each others' mics, creating some bad echoes.
Lindsay C. Walker's minimal set is practical enough, allowing Wells and the cast to put the focus on the physical staging throughout the play. Her one inexplicable choice is the presence of two dressing mannequins standing by the upstage entrance. They're useful as a brief hiding spot for Macbeth's hired murderers, but otherwise serve no apparent purpose. Other unusual (and ineffective) staging decisions include Macbeth's wasted presence during Lady Macbeth's mad scene – his awkward stance at the back of the top balcony looks like a tossed-in afterthought.
Want to see a great version of The Scottish Play? Try your video store or library; there's Roman Polanski's moody, savage 1971 film, or Akira Kurosawa's 1957 reworking, Throne of Blood. Canadian Stage's new mount of Macbeth wastes its potential with a shallow lead performance and almost no sense of tragic scope. It's got its share of sound and fury, but in the end, it signifies nothing.
More about Theatre, canadian stage, Shakespeare, William shakespeare, shakespeare in high park
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