Darko Tresnjak’s production of Macbeth at Hartford Stage does the classic tragedy justice and accentuates the speed of the title character’s descent into murderous tyranny. Clocking in at just two-and-a-quarter hours including one intermission, the show is period accurate to the 11th century in look. But the matter at hand — a man who comes into leadership through foul play and then stops at nothing to retain it — seems awfully apt to our times: think Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein or Bashar al- Assad. Such is Shakespeare’s genius that he could pen a piece in 1606 that remains so incisive, and that has a distinctly modern feel, both in terms of psychological analysis and literary structure.
Stripped down to Shakespearean essentials, the violence of the story emerges strongly. This is not a tale for the faint of heart and there are choices made in this staging that go well beyond convention. Some are small touches. When the murderers he’s hired return from killing his friend Banquo, Macbeth can’t keep from reaching out to touch the blood spattered on the murderer’s face. Interrupted by the court, Macbeth then washes his fingertips clean in his wine and drinks it down. The clarity of the choices here chart the descent into depravity with nearly clinical precision; they justify awful moments, like the marital rape that leads us into intermission. We are spared the sort of spurting bloodbath movies revel in, but the violence is abrupt and vicious.
Actor Matthew Rauch in the title role brings a strong physical presence to bear and delivers the text fast and feelingly: he’s easy to follow and makes the famous moments normal rather than speechy. He is well matched by Kate Forbes as Lady M (who played Goodwife Proctor in The Crucible two seasons back). They are mature people, not youngsters, which makes us see that their ambition is grounded in fear that power may pass them by altogether if they do not act now. The rest of the busy company works with speed and precision, too.
The barebones set (which Tresnjak also designed) is an all-black frame for Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes, which are very faithful to 11th century Scots working folk — there’s little in the way of folderol. The exception, of course, is the garb of the witches, who are described in the text as weird bearded females. Here, they wear bald caps with stringy locks and lacy black trailing garments covering their grotesque shapes, with great lolling pendulous breasts and padded bums. It’s meant to be unsettling, and it is, even before the props folks do their best to creep us out with the contents of their cauldron. No spoilers, but hats off to the props team for the final moment of the show, too. Sound design throughout is terrific: my favorite moment was when one witch writes with chalk in air and we hear it, synced exactly. The spare set works to keep the pace moving, but is less effective at creating several special effects that the plot demands.
It’s fitting to spend some space on the tech side of this show, since it is running in rotating repertory with a frothy French 17th century comedy, La Disputre. Changing the sets back and forth takes about five hours, I’m told, and it happens several times a week throughout the long dual run of the two plays. The same actors appear in both shows. It’s a treat for them to have an opportunity to show off their range, and good fun for avid theatergoers to watch them transform. Kudos too to Hartford Stage management to make this investment in steady work for a company of actors! It’s an ambitious undertaking, but one that makes for a more humane workplace for artists and a richer experience of relationship for audiences. Let’s hope it can continue in future seasons.
In rotation with La Dispute through November 10. Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street. (860) 527-5151.