The big changes to the “Macbeth” at the Folger Theatre include famous monologues that have been substantially trimmed; a newly heroic Macduff and Lady Macduff, who have bigger roles than Shakespeare dreamed of; and witches in extended sequences of song and dance.
Why? Not because director Robert Richmond had some hot new concept he wanted to try. Instead, this “Macbeth” is a painstakingly assembled revival of a version that’s about 350 years old, adapted by William Davenant as London’s theaters reopened after being shut down for 18 years during England’s Civil War.
In the 1660s, Davenant jazzed up “Macbeth” with trends he’d seen in France — music, ballet and moving painted scenery among them, plus women onstage (not just men). That suited England’s new Francophile king and entertained a fresh wave of audiences getting reacquainted with the stage.
“People have been messing around with Shakespeare since the first generation after Shakespeare,” says Richard Schoch, a scholar at Queen’s University at Belfast, in Northern Ireland, who helped spearhead this rare “Macbeth.” “It’s not just us.”
“It is surprising that more of this hasn’t been done,” agrees Syracuse professor Amanda Winkler, who is the “co-investigator” with Schoch on Performing Restoration Shakespeare, a three-year effort funded by Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. “We think it will appeal to modern audiences because of its variety, the music — the way everything works together.”
The goal for Schoch and Winkler is to get some of the Restoration-era Shakespearean adaptations into full productions, both to see what they were like and to give modern audiences a different angle on material we already know awfully well. (“Macbeths” are thick on the ground in Washington this season, with at least three productions on the calendar.)
Last year the researchers got a two-day workshop view of a Restoration-tweaked “The Tempest” at London’s Globe Theatre. The Folger is taking things a step further with this fully produced three-week run as an add-on to its regular season. The cast features Ian Merrill Peakes and Kate Eastwood Norris as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, roles they played together at the Folger a decade ago in the staging co-directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller; Peakes was in that production again just this summer at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater). The current show prominently features the early-music ensemble the Folger Consort, which will perform music John Eccles wrote for a 1690s production of this “Macbeth.”
“It’s bonny, happy, chirpy, fun,” director Richmond says of the score, noting that it’s hardly what audiences will expect the witches to sing.
Davenant’s plot and language are recognizably “Macbeth,” but if you glance at the side-by-side scripts on the Folger’s website, you’ll notice the cuts for speed, and the de-emphasis on poetry and archaic language by writing “your” instead of “thine.” The scene with the porter is cut. Lady Macduff has a scene with Lady Macbeth.
“They’ll know when these famous speeches will be tweaked and changed by Davenant,” Winkler says of the Folger audience.
Another rub is that, well, yes, Richmond does have a bit of a concept to lay on. “Early on he asked if it would be okay to adapt the adaptation,” Schoch says. “Our response was, ‘But of course!’ That’s totally in the spirit of Restoration Shakespeare.”
Richmond is setting the play in London’s notorious psychiatric hospital Bedlam with inmates acting the show for visitors. In part, that choice is to accommodate the extravagant physical style of Restoration acting — even though, as everyone involved points out, this revival is not going to be a thoroughly old-fashioned imitation of Restoration style. The project may have begun with scholars trying to make a case for Davenant’s 17th-century theatrical liberties, but the goal is to make a show that can hold the stage now. To that end, Richmond has a trick up his sleeve — no spoiler here — that he hopes will help the murderous plot “get real.”
For Schoch, finding ways for academics and artists to work together is another hopeful outcome of this partnership. As many as nine scholars were part of early rehearsals.
“I don’t think you can have too many brains in the room,” says Janet Griffin, director of public programs and artistic producer at Folger. “It’s just coordinating when the brains speak.”
Richmond says, “I can bat it across the room and say, ‘Hey — anybody got an idea about Restoration gesture?’ It’s just a conversation. It’s just about having a larger team.”
Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu
Dates: Through Sept. 23.