REVIEW: Some toil, some trouble in “Macbeth”

L-R: Tarek El Tayech (Macbeth) and Miguel Vasquez (Macduff); photo by Luis Mendez

Tarek El Tayech and Miguel Vasquez give clear, compelling performances in this bare-bones, straightforward staging.

William Shakespeare’s plays are such a cultural staple that you can strip down, stylize, or embellish them, and you’re still bound to come up with a good product. If you do it right.

This Carlos Cariño-directed production of Macbeth opts for a bare-bones approach. This is a straightforward retelling, with no changes or license taken with the text. The set is sparse, comprised only of a couple of scaffoldings, wooden branches, and boxes that do multiple duty as tables, chairs, or throne, as the scene demands. The staging is intimate, with characters performing almost beside the audience, who are also regularly involved in the scenes. But the difficulty with this approach is that it demands great strength from the actors to bring the story to life.

The story is this: Macbeth is a brave soldier and a war hero who encounters a coven of witches who prophesize that he will become King of Scotland. He will be unbeatable, for “none of woman born” shall ever defeat him. Macbeth believes in the witches’ prophecy, and goaded by his wife, he gives in to his ambitious side, even resorting to the murder of King Duncan to usurp his throne. His friend Banquo, who soon suspects him, and who also receives a prophecy from the witches that he will sire a line of kings, becomes Macbeth’s next victim. The warrior Macduff, who remains loyal to the King’s sons, also poses a threat to Macbeth, so Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff’s family. Macbeth slowly descends into madness as a consequence of his increasing ruthlessness, and because he believes himself invincible, he defies circumstances even when they are obviously against him. Ultimately he is slain by Macduff, who was born by Caesarean section, thus ensuring that even the last prophecy comes true.

Tarek El Tayech plays Macbeth, and his powerful stage presence commands your undivided attention. He shows clearly the deterioration of Macbeth, who starts out as a lauded hero on the battlefield, but who slowly gets consumed by his blinding ambition and perceived invincibility. He delivers a nuanced performance, at times pulling back to show a Macbeth getting unhinged and being eaten away by gnawing doubts, then shouting the house down as a raging tyrant who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Miguel Vasquez also puts in a stellar performance as Macduff. A true and loyal patriot, Macduff is the antithesis of Macbeth. He fights for noble reasons: to protect his country and reinstate its rightful leader, and to avenge the death of his family. Vasquez demonstrates a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s prose with his effective delivery and booming voice, compelling the audience not only to listen and pay attention to him, but also helping them to understand the very words themselves. The English of Shakespeare’s day is not the same language we know today, but in the hands of El Tayech and Vasquez, this does not even matter. We know what is happening, and we are caught in the drama.

Tarek El Tayech (Macbeth) and Miguel Vasquez (Macduff); photo by Gian Nicdao

However, the rest of the cast don’t quite match the intensity of the two. Stripped of almost anything superfluous in the production, it’s all down to the dialogue and the delivery. Lady Macbeth is one of the most complex characters in literature, this scheming, manipulative woman who spurs her husband to murder. It is she who plants the idea of murdering the King to Macbeth, and it is she who mocks her husband’s manliness when he hesitates. Issa Litton plays Lady Macbeth less as a scheming character and more of a persuasive wife. El Tayech almost always overpowers her in their scenes together, and the dynamic is not quite right. By the time we get to her famous sleepwalking scene (“Out, damned spot!”) as she is gradually overcome by her guilt, we don’t feel anything for the character. She is a passive partner rather than the conniving puppet-master, and there is no impact when she finally dies. Fermin Villegas’ King Duncan is also a pivotal character because his murder is the turning point for Macbeth, when he finally succumbs to his greed. This Duncan is not so much the strong and noble character that highlights the depths to which Macbeth falls. His delivery of the dialogue is not as powerful and clear as the audience needs it to be in order to become fully invested in Macbeth’s decline.

Issa Litton (Lady Macbeth); photo by David Paman

The cast tries its best, and although it’s apparent that most are laboring with the text, it shows that they are taking the material seriously. (However the audience participation can be toned down a bit, especially when it puts the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff in danger of turning into comedy.) The witches are appropriately spooky and make the most of their time on stage. There are clever touches in the costumes – the cast is in fashionably tattered black clothes in various stages of grunginess, but the main characters wear different tartans as a nod to the Scottish setting, and to help keep track of who’s related to whom. The fight choreography is dynamic and athletic. The music and stage effects evoke the loneliness of the moors and the supernatural elements of the play with the generous use of a fog machine, though sometimes it threatens to envelop the audience themselves.

But with uneven casting and nothing particularly mind-blowing about it, it still begs the question of what this staging is trying to achieve. Is there any statement to be made? Is it merely for education or entertainment? We’re left with a vague question why, even if it’s a valiant effort, we’re not moved enough.

Tickets: Php1,000.00
Show Dates: Nov 8 ‘19, Nov 9 ‘19, Nov 10 ‘19, Nov 15 ‘19, Nov 16 ‘19, Nov 17 ‘19, Nov 23 ‘19
Venue: Power Mac Center Spotlight, Makati
Running Time: approx 2.5 hours (w/ 15-minute intermission)
Credits: William Shakespeare (Play), Carlos Cariño (Director), Joanna Foz Castro (Choreography), Andy Gruet (Music and Sound Design), Miguel Vasquez (Fight Choreography), Angelica Lorenzo (Set Design), Jorge Lafradez (Costume Design), Irene Romero (Technical Director)
Cast: Tarek El Tayech, Issa Litton, Anne Gauthier das Neves, Joel Parcon, Fermin Villegas, Miguel Vasquez, Tory Cortez, Txavi Evangelista, Luis Sumera, Denise Castillo, Rayne Cortez, Jeremy Mendoza
Company: Theatre Titas 
Sandy Da Silva: Loves museums, libraries, and coffee shops. Pet mama to a fluffy baby boy. In her spare time she likes to sing entire musicals in her head. You can find her other writings at mister beebop.

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