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Simon Godwin's modern-dress 'Macbeth' comes to Washington

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Photo: Marc Brenner

The demand for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Macbeth has reportedly been off the charts. Simon Godwin, artistic director of STC since 2019, directed this staging in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and London, and it makes its final stop here. In each city, the venue has not been a traditional theater, but a larger building like a warehouse, adapted to the purpose. In Washington, theater-goers must make their way to the former campus of Black Entertainment Television headquarters in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast. The cast, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, has remained the same in each location.

To reach the stage, viewers pass through a room made to look like a modern war zone, with the wreck of a bombed-out car and the glow of fires. Even before the show begins, actos costumed like soldiers patrol the space. The action unfolds not in medieval Scotland, but in a 21st-century location torn apart by warfare. Through the sometimes overwhelming sound system, which surrounds the audience, the sonic boom of jet fighters and explosions punctuates the evening (sound design by Christopher Shutt). Macbeth and the other thanes and soldiers wore military fatigues and tactical vests and helmets while in the field. In the court scenes, they wore elegant gowns, suits, and dress military uniforms with a faintly fascist edge, at times reminiscent of the updated Richard III starring Ian McKellen from over twenty years ago.
The technical bells and whistles are impressive, but other than the battle scenes at the opening and close, the Scottish play is really about private ambitions: it hardly matters where or when the war is happening. The adaptation by Emily Burns streamlines some parts of the play without removing most of the best parts. The three witches (Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya, and Lola Shalam) appear out of one of several loud explosions, looking like victims of an urban bombing mission who have narrowly escaped death and bear the psychic trauma of it. Bright lights often assist their covert entrances and exits, as Godwin's staging walks a fine line between the witches being supernatural powers or just shell-shocked ghosts.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes plays the title role older and a little more seasoned and wise. His Macbeth has been worn down by age, as well as by the demanding nature of his wife, played with vehement force by Indira Varma. Younger than her husband, Lady Macbeth drives him where his ambition might not have taken him. She spurs him beyond the life af a sort of dutiful also-ran in the service of Duncan to grasp at the throne after hearing the strange prophecies of the women harmed by his own military exploits.

If the supernatural business is downplayed a bit (no Hecate appears in the final prophecy scene), the physical elements of violence are amplified: much blood from the murder of Duncan, and even more from the onstage killing of Banquo, among the most graphic stagings in recent memory. Steffan Rhodri's Banquo proved a highlight, an older veteran of many battles by Macbeth's side, with the grim humor to show for it. Ben Turner had the most affecting moments of the evening, drawing out the paternal grief of Macduff as he learned of the murder of his family.

Macbeth runs through May 5. A filmed version will be released in theaters starting on May 2.

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