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Theater & Dance | Review

Two critics debate a rare rehashing of a revised ‘Macbeth,’ singing witches and all

September 12, 2018 at 1:35 PM

This Restoration-era version of “Macbeth” features singing witches, played by Ethan Watermeier, Rachael Montgomery and Emily Noel. (Brittany Diliberto/)

Folger Theatre is trying something different — staging a bastardized, Restoration-era version of “Macbeth” with music that was first performed in 1664 and was popular for 150 years — so we thought we’d try something novel, too. Anne Midgette, The Washington Post’s classical music critic, and Peter Marks, The Post’s chief theater critic, both attended the press performance Sunday night and decided to bat their reactions back and forth.

Marks: Well, Anne, that turned out to be a lot more tedious than I had hoped. William Davenant's 17th-century adaptation, coupled with some curious additional tinkering by director Robert Richmond, made for a rather lugubrious "Macbeth," despite the presence of such fine actors as Ian Merrill Peakes and Kate Eastwood Norris as the Macbeths — roles they played in a superior Folger production 10 years ago. I mean, omitting the Porter scene? Turning the stolid Macduffs into ­quasi-leads? Don't you think Shakespeare would have torn his ruff off and run screaming from the hall?

Midgette: Well, I may have a higher tolerance for "Macbeth" adaptations, since at this point in my life, I've been to Verdi's operatic version more than Shakespeare's original drama. And I don't think this production was making a claim to be definitive, much less better than Shakespeare: Rather, it was offering us a rare glimpse of a nearly forgotten performance style. So while I, too, found the piece somewhat tedious on its own merits — even with Richmond's best efforts to liven it up by envisioning it as staged by inmates in a lunatic asylum, a la "Marat/Sade" — I thought it also was sufficiently thought-provoking to have been worth seeing. 

Marks: For sure, I take my hat off to Folger for its adventurousness. This “Macbeth” is a world premiere of sorts, spurred by a grant from a British organization, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, for a “Performing Restoration Shakespeare” project. Folger, under artistic director Janet Griffin, has emerged as a wonderfully receptive staging ground for innovative approaches to the classics. Still, I’m not a researcher; I’m a theatergoer. And, yes, while some of Davenant’s klutzy revisions — I mean, “out, out, short candle”? — did inadvertently serve to underline the lyrical genius of Shakespeare, the resulting production felt stripped of suspense and virtually any other entertainment value. Plus, I thought Richmond’s framing device made little sense, except perhaps to suggest that, sorry, anyone trying to stage this adaptation has to be a little nuts.

Midgette: I'm curious to hear what you thought about the singing witches. This production was billed as a musical event — technically on the season of the Folger Consort rather than the Folger Theatre — with carefully curated incidental music interleaved (to a greater degree than I thought) with contemporary improvisations. But the most striking single feature, musically, is that the three weird sisters had extended musical numbers — something that evidently remained a feature of Macbeth performance practice long after Davenant's version of the text had passed out of currency. Having the witches sing certainly does address one of the persistent questions that dog the genre of opera, that of why the characters should be singing in the first place: It makes sense that these otherworldly beings should communicate in a different idiom. But to modern ears, the interpolations by Purcell and John Eccles — including music he wrote specifically for "Macbeth" — sounded rather tranquil and jolly, creating a pastoral effect at some of the piece's darkest moments. 

The witches with the slain King Duncan. From right: Emily Noel, Louis Butelli as Duncan, Rachael Montgomery and Ethan Watermeier. (Brittany Diliberto/)

Marks: "Tranquil and jolly" sounds right to me. Building a musical motif around the supernatural characters seemed the one commendable element of Davenant's meddlings. Musical interludes are of course endemic to Shakespeare, so there's justification for turning the witches into a Restoration girl group (in the guise of the estimable Rachael Montgomery, Emily Noel and Ethan Watermeier). The extended "toil and trouble" sequence at the top of Act 2, in which the witches went through what now sounds like a Sprechstimme litany of ingredients for their brew, put me in mind of the "list songs" — like "A Little Priest" in "Sweeney Todd" — that are a staple of modern musicals. Do you know if musical tastes in Davenant's era demanded a tranquil and jolly tone, even in a tragedy? And while we're at it, did any of the performances stand out for you?

Midgette: The "best" singer, in terms of conventional vocal production, was Emily Noel, who was given her own solo turn — though the question always arises of how well or prettily a witch should actually sing. (Verdi even demanded that his Lady Macbeth not have a conventionally pretty voice.) As to your larger question, I don't think this music sounded pastoral to 17th-century audiences; it was the current popular idiom, interpolated as part of an evening's entertainment. The Folger production tried to underline this, and bridge past and present, by also interpolating contemporary musical elements. The aesthetic of the time favored potpourri rather than the kind of dramatic unity we now expect. Still, I was struck that Davenant, in his adaptation, identified many of the same dramatic highlights Verdi did — down to elaborating on Macduff, though Verdi did it in a single telling aria rather than the heavy-handed scenes Davenant added to create a "good" couple as a dramatic pendant to the "bad" Macbeths.

Marks: That helps put in context some of the shortcomings of Davenant's effort at contemporizing and why, for me, Shakespeare's version is transcendent, while this one feels so plodding. I do have to put in a good word for Peakes and Norris, who gamely play along but whose characters now seem to be contending not only with the other Scottish nobles but the text, as well. 

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, adapted by William Davenant, with music performed by Folger Consort. Music director, Robert Eisenstein; set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Anzaldo Hale; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Matt Otto; fight choreography, Cliff Williams III. With Louis Butelli, Chris Genebach, Karen Peakes, Owen Peakes, Rafael Sebastian, Jaysen Wright, John Floyd. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $27-$79. Through Sept. 23 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. folger.edu/theatre or 202-544-7077.

Ian Merrill Peakes as the Scottish king. (Brittany Diliberto/)

Peter Marks joined The Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Previously, he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.

Anne Midgette came to The Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She can be found online as The Classical Beat.

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