Performed by MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Directed by Edward Eaton
La Sala de Puerto Rico
Runs November 5-7 at 8 p.m.
Along the spectrum of villains and traitors, Macbeth falls somewhere between Brutus and Joffrey Baratheon. Spurred on by his wife’s ambitions, he murders his king, his best friend, and a whole family in order to gain and keep the throne. With all the aspirations of a would-be ruler, but none of the guts, Macbeth is truly an unsympathetic character. But what if someone other than Lady Macbeth were pulling his strings? What if the events of Shakespeare’s classic play were actually orchestrated by a cabal of witches?
This past week, I had the privilege of attending the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s dress rehearsal for Macbeth. Nothing could be more seasonally appropriate than their beautifully eerie reinterpretation of the classic play, which focuses on the role of the witches who promise Macbeth the crown.
Director Edward Eaton, a teacher at Massachusetts Bay Community College, describes this version of Macbeth as a “witches’ performance for the main characters, who don’t know their own role in the play.” Eaton explained his inspiration behind this version: “I’ve watched enough CSI to know that the investigators always look for the last man standing. Whoever is left alive at the end of the story is usually the responsible party”.
Throughout the play, the witches act as an active chorus, crawling on the ground and commenting on the action. Meanwhile, Macbeth and the other lead characters step over the witches as if they were not there. Occasionally, some witches will pick themselves off the ground, shedding their rags to reveal the costume of a herald or noble. Again, the main characters remain unaware of the witches’ transformations. The offstage efforts of Noelle Colant ’17 (make-up design) and Jacob Gunter ’16 (set design) help draw the audience into the witches’ deception. The dim, shifting lights and ground-level stage blur the lines between the performers and the spectators. The chief witch, caked in gory makeup, sits near the audience, watching the events play out and occasionally stepping on stage in the guise of a messenger.
In an ironic reversal of the gender roles from Shakespeare’s time, actresses play most of the main male characters. However, personalities and relationship dynamics remain unchanged from the original version. Banquo, played by Amelia Smith ’17, is still a good-hearted noble. Lady Macbeth, played by Talia Weiss ’18, is still strong-willed and manipulative. As the play progresses, Weiss brings a convincing madness to the character, even delivering some lines in song. Tal Scully ’19 takes Macbeth’s character through a different type of development, adjusting posture and delivery to transform a spineless husband into a jaded tyrant by the end of the play.
Shakespeare’s original lines remain unaltered, but have been cut and rearranged to frame the play in a more paranormal light. During one scene, Macbeth meets Banquo’s ghost. He struggles to keep his composure while the witches, posing as nobles, deliver their lines with mocking cackles. Some of Macbeth’s lines, usually spoken as an aside, have also been given to the witches. This creates ambiguity as to whether the witches truly exist externally. Some of these subtle changes may be lost on those who haven’t touched Shakespeare since high school. In my case, I made up for a lack of familiarity by following the script on my laptop during the dress rehearsal. For those without laptop access during the play, a quick Wikipedia refresher will enhance the experience, but is certainly not necessary to enjoy the performance.
Like any Shakespearean tragedy, the body count rockets towards the end of the story. However, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble does a good job of making each death meaningful. Stage sword fighting gives way to hand-to-hand struggles, which feel desperate and physical. The carnage builds to an unexpected ending, which I won’t spoil here. Although the ending is a little surprising, the twist doesn’t come off as cheap or unwarranted. The play’s conclusion arises naturally from the Ensemble’s chosen interpretation.
The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s Macbeth brings a creative retelling to an old classic, while still retaining the tragic elements that made the original great. I encourage you to see it while you’re still at the height of your Halloween spirit.
Macbeth will continue to run on Nov. 5, Nov. 6, and Nov. 7 at 8 p.m.