Culture  Militarizing Macbeth

Players' unmasks human brutality

Shakespeare’s celebrated Macbeth hits the stage of Players’ Theatre this season with an intriguing adaptation. Director Martin Law looks to explore Shakespeare’s work with a more contemporary spin by setting the play in the political upheaval of ravaged Europe during the First World War. Law states that he wanted to recontextualize the story in a different “society of chaos [and] ambition.”

The original tragedy, which explores themes of unrestrained ambition, a wavering moral compass, and psychological turbulence, is largely preserved. Law’s version is successful in that his change of context remains relatively subtle throughout the majority of the play, allowing Shakespeare’s original themes to shine through. His most prominent modifications were the severe military attire, the variety of wartime propaganda on the set, and the violence, which was perhaps even more exaggerated than that found in the average Shakespearean stage fight.

While the performance of Macbeth (Matthew Rian Steen) certainly lived up to the audience’s expectation – a morally troubled and mentally divided figure – other characters proved more mesmerizing. Annie MacKay’s Lady Macbeth was particularly disturbing, expertly conveying the character’s cruel, manipulative drive and collapse into paranoia and anxiety. Law believes that this demonstrates how Lady Macbeth was a catalyst, “the crucial ingredient to push [Macbeth] over the edge and get him to kill.”

Also notable were the intense, crazed performances of the witches, especially that of Ayla Lefkowitz, who chilled the audience with her demented gaze. Banquo (Emily Murphy) was admittedly rather dull while alive, but when transformed into their ghost-like state, was especially eye-catching and sinister, more like a character out of Night of the Living Dead than from either the Elizabethan or World War I era. These characters helped to instill the production with a fantastical, dream-like quality.

Macbeth is one of the darkest in Shakespeare’s canon. As the plot unwinds, the principal characters demonstrate in bloody fashion the moral ambiguity of humanity. Moreover, Macbeth’s terrifying descent into madness and insanity raises the question of whether we really are evil beasts deep down, or if his character simply represents the ‘everyman’ who becomes enthralled by power. Facilitating this theme was Law’s personal decision to have the characters wear masks for a portion of the story, highlighting their desperate attempts to hide their two-faced nature, “full of scorpions,” behind a façade of normality.

Law sheds light on the intensity of carnage and moral corruption present in both the storyline and World War I, highlighting the hypocrisy of the glamourized façade of the war effort. Analogous to how the masks shield Macbeth’s evil intentions, the brutal fighting of the war is “masked and cloaked in recruitment propaganda,” Law explains. He describes Rosie the Riveter as a key example, the female war recruitment emblem seen on the advertisements for this production by Players’ Theatre, shrieking, “Out Damned Spot!”

Despite the director’s best efforts, while the combat scenes in the latter part of the play are expertly choreographed, in the cramped and highly personal atmosphere of Player’s Theatre, the scenes no longer seem warlike, but more like a series of well-organized wrestling matches.

Furthermore, while Law says he is attempting to exceed efforts of other directors to “modernize” one of Shakespeare’s most renowned tales, setting Macbeth in a 100-year-past war doesn’t quite live up to this promise. In this regard, although the adaptation stops short of speaking directly to students, it presents an authentic and engaging take on a dark play.


Macbeth is showing this week at Players’ Theatre from February 27 to March 2. Tickets are $6.00 for students.