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Theatre review

Something wicked this way comes: Macbeth at Shakespeare in High Park

by Drew Rowsome
Photos by David Hou

Macbeth continues at Shakespeare in High Park, 1873 Bloor St W on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays until Sun, Sept 1.

It's a tragedy that Shakespeare has a reputation for being esoteric or hard to follow. The current production of Macbeth in High Park does a remarkable job of making the story, text and themes crystal clear, and to make the evening a highly entertaining one. The natural setting is exploited to the hilt with the setting of the sun and the encroaching darkness mirroring the darkening of the plot.

There is one particularly clever - and very simply but deftly done - lighting effect that drags the audience through the stage and into the story. Macbeth's supernatural elements - a good part of what makes it a popular play in the canon - are decked out in classical horror film fashion and for the most part it works beautifully with only one moment drawing giggles that weren't from nerves. The witches are eerie and the puppet oracle does, as puppets tend to do, transform from a special effect into another character erasing its initial Chucky impression. Macbeth is utterly engrossing and as the action moves off the stage and into the seats to surround the atmosphere grows spooky, compelling and unsettling.

Macbeth contains dozens of phrases that have entered the vernacular and it is a credit to the skills of the actors who handle the language so deftly and with such ease that the quotable moments don't pop out but rather blend seamlessly into the flow. There is only one instance of "stand and declaim" and the stage direction cleverly uses motion and subtle effects to illustrate and clarify. This is a brisk Macbeth that rarely stops for a breath but moves relentlessly towards the denouement.

All of the actors do double or triple duty which is occasionally disorienting when they are performing so close that facial features are not disguisable, but all acquit well. Hugh Thompson is a tortured but eloquent Macbeth; Philippa Domville finds the seductive quality in Lady Macbeth's ruthless ambition; Ryan Hollyman is a solid and sexily vengeful Macduff; and the witches, Sophie Goulet, Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Philippa Domville steal every scene they are in. The witches are helped immensely by the set design that builds on a rustic Celtic wood theme (evoking every horror film where protagonists are trapped in a cabin in the woods) that allows their blood-red capes to be the only accent as well as a symbolic portent.

But what do the themes of Macbeth have to say to a modern audience? In a post-democratic world the plight of kings and queens are somewhat removed from us the masses, except in the pages of the tabloids. The opening night evening was introduced by a gathering of the three representatives of government for the Parkdale/High Park area. To listen to, and watch, the City Councillor, MP and MPP bicker good-naturedly about who was responsible for the good weather and who had the best record of supporting the arts put a tight focus on Macbeth's themes. As the carnage in the pursuit of power for its own sake began, it was impossible not to draw parallels to the despots of Syria, Iran and Italy, and our own megalomaniac mayor and Mr Stephen Harper. If Macbeth had donned a blue cardigan instead of a cape it would have been explicitly apt.

Macbeth continues at Shakespeare in High Park, 1873 Bloor St W on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays until Sun, Sept 1.