We have often remarked here on the frequent missteps of large arts organizations that, led by some combination of cynical ticket-mongering and false moral posturing, embrace a spirit of phony democratization, watering down the very art that it is their charge to conserve. Small companies, meanwhile, often enjoying an equally small but devoted following, and not needing to pander in order to draw large audiences, can get quite close to the truth of a piece even if their resources are limited. Running now, for example, and continuing through the weekend is a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the Old Hat Theatre Company (a classical theater troupe with which I have previously had some association myself).
This staging, directed by Elizabeth Sutton-Stone, draws its inspiration from the trench warfare of the Great War’s Western Front, a choice that magnifies the constant fear of violence that underpins every line of the play. Duncan’s first meeting with his war council has rarely seemed so urgent, steaming ahead with a nervous uncertainty as to the battle’s outcome as the roof of the trench bunker threatens to collapse under heavy shelling—a scene right out of Journey’s End.
The specificity and vividness of the conceit is matched by the vividness of the actors’ portrayals: Macduff as a hardened career soldier, Banquo an affable staff officer, Malcolm an Eton lad on his first commission. Particularly compelling among the supporting roles was Lennox, played by John Ford-Dunker, a dutiful soldier torn between his bond as a subject and his love of country.
The lead couple were unusually sympathetic, a choice that made Derek Loehr a compelling but approachable Macbeth, a man of duty confronted with and ruined by the opportunity he never sought. He is ruthless, to be sure, but after witnessing his tragic unraveling over the course of five acts, a casual observer is almost ready to cheer him on when he resolves to “try the last” in his fatal duel. An equally warm portrayal of Lady Macbeth was harder to connect to, if only because the author leaves little room for such an interpretation in the first frantic act. The trade-off, though, was a stunningly human relationship between the two principals, and Erin Capistrano portrayed the role with a tremendous dignity that made her sudden break into madness all the more shattering.
Some of her most compelling work, though, came in her scene as Lady Macduff (the most unusual of a number of double-castings): her interaction with her child was arresting, an exchange so natural and endearing it seemed devised in the instant. It was moments like these that made the two performances I attended so affecting. Macduff’s (Brennan Caldwell) dumbfounded shock on hearing of his family’s murder, Siward’s (again Ford-Dunker) composed grief for the loss of his son, the Macbeths’ embrace as they find the will to go on with their plan: these are the sorts of episodes that display Shakespeare’s enormous gift for finding humanity onstage, and a company that acts them with such honesty, hewing faithfully to the spirit of the text, does a service to both the play and the audience.
Macbeth runs through May 28 at St. Paul’s Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (334 S. 5th St.) Visit http://www.oldhattheatrecompany.com/macbeth/ for more information.