Macbeth (Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble) @ The Wharf Loft

‘The night has been unruly’ remarked Lennox (Madison Rudolph); ‘’Twas a rough night’ agreed Macbeth (Kailey Potter). The lines resonated as an audience huddled together in the loft space of The Wharf; the planned outdoor opening of Treehouse Ensemble’s Macbeth in the garden of Rose Terrace had been scrapped as the rainstorms swept inland by Hurricane Ian battered the town. But this also felt appropriate to a Macbeth that consciously leaned into the play’s nature imagery, manifested in the vines and branches that snaked around the loft space, across and down the screen that served as tiring house, and which bled into the intricately carved masks worn by three cackling witches, the living weeds, whose twisted nature went quickly to work in response to the wars of humans.

In this sixty-minute cut of the play – which has an ultimate target audience of school groups, to whom the show will be touring throughout the academic year – the witches were a constant threat, undermining the confidence with which humans attempted to take their destiny into their own hands. Certainly, the Scotland of the play’s opening was a world of confident rule. Beth Harris’s upright Duncan, a striking regal presence, gave his blessing to the soldiers who had parted from their wives in order to fight on his behalf, as his nobles flanked him. Macbeth, Macduff (Keith Taylor), and Banquo (Kelsey Harrison) headed up an army that moved in determined formation, and which gave way to a single Sergeant (Cole Metz) emblematically defeating an enemy soldier in slow swordplay. But behind the gathered and victorious Scottish army, the witches suddenly appeared as if from nowhere in a lovely piece of misdirection; whatever order the mortals of this world may have thought they could impose, the witches subverted it.

Like nature itself, the witches were seemingly everywhere. Their primary tone was pleasure; a seemingly older witch (Cameron Taylor), with elaborate mask and branches growing out of his head, took charge of the incantations, hunched and rubbing hands with glee, while two younger witches (Kara Hankard and Rachel Louis), with smaller masks and letting out peals of laughter, joined hands with their leader. Their distinctive, uncanny physicality – jagged arms, hands outstretched, often crawling or leaning into the space – not only distinguished them from the upright formality of Scotland’s soldier class, but disrupted the clean lines and patterns of the space; like weeds, they continually threatened to extend where they were not wanted or planned for. They pawed over the Sergeant and his victim, but as their charm wound up, Macbeth crossed the stage, just in time for them to light upon him as a focus. Thereafter, the witches lingered on the edges of the stage, in the aisles between audience members, or poking out from behind the upstage screen, keeping close watch on their mark and enjoying his rise and, even more, his fall.

The witches’ manipulations made a game of a human tragedy. Pulling up their hoods to enter the world of men in disguise, they became the various servants of the Macbeths, ushering in news of Macbeth’s arrival to Lady Macbeth, or announcing the murderers to Macbeth. The Second Witch joined the nighttime assault on Banquo, purely so that she could grab Fleance (Madison Mattfield) and tell him to fly, before casually telling her comrades-in-crime that the child had escaped and then manipulating Banquo’s body in preparation for his reappearance at the banquet. The liminal position of the Witches was often one of watching – during Lady Macbeth’s (Rosemary Richards) sleepwalking scene, they crouched at the edge of the stage and merely mirrored her actions – but at other times they seemed only to be waiting for their cue. Richards’s dominant Lady Macbeth called with unambiguous command for spirits to attend her, and the Witches wasted no time in joining her onstage, surrounding her and co-opting her into their own uncanny physicality by forming a mini-circle around her and reflecting her downward-facing palms back up at her as they infused her with their power – or perhaps took hers for their own.

The bodies of the witches were the primary means around which the supernatural was focalized, but their influence went beyond their own reaching hands. Harrison and George Durfee’s musical score featured a waterphone whose screeches slashed diagonally across the play’s aural environment, announcing the arrival of the unseen dagger that beckoned Macbeth on while the witches waited in the sidelines; the same sound accompanied the Ghost at the banquet spinning to face the guilty Macbeth and the leanings of Lady Macbeth into her own conjuration of spirits. The malign influence of the witches exceeded their own presence; Banquo’s steady Ghost took on a life of its own after being set up by the Second Witch, wheeling on Macbeth and backing him away from his confused subjects, and then later smiling before exiting the stage, leaving Macbeth staring at a befuddled Lennox. The growing presence of the uncanny culminated as Macbeth took it upon himself to face down the Witches, who finally moved from the sides of the stage to its centre for an impressively choreographed movement sequence, during which the whole ensemble jerked and stomped rhythmically around the witches’ cauldron while they brewed their potions. Macbeth’s arrival in the central aisle brought the whole dance of death to a halt, and – like Faustus facing the Seven Deadly Sins – Macbeth was confronted with a pageant, first as the assembled bodies produced apparitions from within themselves to scream prophecies at him, and then as he was forced to his knees and made to watch as a masked Banquo headed up a procession that threw history past him, past him, past him – until he was confronted with the spectre of a Fleance who would inherit all.

What were the witches trying to achieve with Macbeth? In Potter’s performance, they found an endlessly fascinating subject. This was an unusually ensemble-oriented Macbeth, and while Macbeth was marked from the start as significant, he also shared his space generously with his comrade soldiers, was deferential to his wife, and was content to slip into the background. This Macbeth had been a loyal warrior and solid husband, but the sudden scrutiny – first from the witches, then from his wife – caught him out. Potter redirected this to the audience, using asides and soliloquies to work out what it meant for Macbeth to step up, a move that Richards’s decisive, impatient Lady Macbeth (whose red dress may have been on the nose, but which articulated a strong statement against the duns and tartans of the men) was pressing him to make. Macbeth’s soliloquies in the first half of the play saw him coming into himself, finding his physical presence (Potter often used the floor space while contemplating, before rising in decisive motion to act and using that motion to drive forward the narrative momentum), and then doubling down on his choices. While Lady Macbeth took over in the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder, it wasn’t long before Macbeth was taking charge, first with the two continually and comically genuflecting murderers (Durfee and Chase Fowler), next to whom Macbeth seemed the epitome of confidence; then with Lady Macbeth, who now found herself on the sidelines as Macbeth told her what would happen next. Macbeth’s slow shedding of his earlier passivity marked his rise.

This was the arc that seemed to inspire the witches’ interest in him. Whatever they threw at Macbeth, he reacted to it initially with fear but then with defiance. He backed away at first from Banquo’s Ghost, but then took the initiative and took the aggression to it before it left; in some ways, Lady Macbeth seemed more disquieted by his anger than by his fear. He brought his defiance to the witches and apparitions, and while they physically overwhelmed him, he left that encounter with purpose. And when Seyton (Metz) brought word of Lady Macbeth’s offstage death, Macbeth fell to his knees and allowed himself to feel the loss as a man, before rising in anger at a narrative that he saw as being told by an idiot. Macbeth’s increasing determination to write his own story, to cling to his own sense of manifest destiny, to throw half-understood prophecies in his enemies’ faces with all the confidence of a king, made him the perfect vessel for the witches to set up for a fall – and when Macduff revealed the truth of his birth, the screaming laughter from the witches marked just how dramatic a fall this had become.

Crucially, though, while the witches could touch Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and those who immediately worked for them, there were forces in this play over which they had no control, and Treehouse’s commitment to ensemble-based work fleshed out the wider political world of which Macbeth was ultimately only a part. From the start, Malcolm (Jordan Willis) and Donalbain (Durfee) were marked as not just brothers but as the closest of allies, Donalbain congratulating his brother warmly on the surprise announcement that he would be Prince of Cumberland. The brotherly solidarity – standing in stark contrast to Macbeth’s isolation in soliloquy – gave shape to the consequences of Macbeth’s witch-enabled rise. In the chaotic aftermath of Duncan’s murder, it was Malcolm and Donalbain who came downstage and quickly hatched their escape plan together. Donalbain took over some minor thane roles so that he could gather his own troops and have a reunion with his brother during the final act, making the overthrow of Macbeth not just a political inevitability, but something enabled by bonds of love and close alliance. These alliances were develop across the ensemble: Siward (Fowler) was brought into the England scene as a reassuring presence; the bond between Siward and his son (Mattfield) was emphasized through their physical connection; and the reassuringly solid, empathetic presence of Ross (Beth Somerville, along with the reliably constant presences of Angus and Lennox) linking almost all of the allied forces helped cement the bonds of the opposing army. In point of fact, in a long career of watching Macbeths, I’ve never seen an English/Scottish invading army so clearly built and developed, for which directors Andrew Steven Knight and Katelyn Spurgin, along with dramaturgs Willis and Metz, should take just credit.

The fact that Malcolm was a hopeful presence was key to enabling this Macbeth to ultimately lead to conciliation. While Malcolm showed youthful pleasure in news of the Thane of Cawdor’s death, he was characterized early on by his determination and speed, launching himself full throttle from the stage while exiting. During the England scene, he showed vulnerability, pushing an increasingly aggrieved Macduff away from him, first with his accusations of Macduff’s lack of loyalty, then with his insistence on his own inadequacies. While there may have been some insecurity underpinning his text of Macduff, Malcolm’s openness following the admission of the trick, and his kneeling before Macduff, seemed designed to move past guile and towards open embrace of an ally. Macduff, for his part, was too straightforward for such games, and seemed relieved for them to be over. But then Ross turned everything on its head with news of the death of Macduff’s family, delivering the news with a grounded formality that also betrayed overwhelming sadness. With the attention now on Macduff, Malcolm was able to reposition himself as a supportive presence, to rally behind Macduff as he went through hell, and in this moment he set himself up as the dynamic leader who would rally the troops throughout Act Five.

The hope provided by Malcolm was called for by the atrocities elsewhere. In a beautiful bit of reverse doubling, Harrison and Mattfield played Banquo and Fleance, but then reversed the parental relationship to become Young Macduff and Lady Macduff respectively in a sweet, truncated scene that played up Young Macduff’s innocence in ways that recalled Fleance’s earlier play-fighting with Uncle Macbeth. The pathos of this scene – and the hideousness of the offstage screams – echoed over the England scene that followed. But even if not everyone encountered such a bloody end, the voices of the conscientious objectors increasingly began to be heard. Ariel Tatum’s Gentlewoman with the goose-faced look was terrified of reporting to Macbeth and dismissed cruelly; Dylan Mabe’s upstanding Doctor attempted to inject reason into the world of the castle but was outflanked by Macbeth spouting denial of medicine at him; the Doctor’s aside had him turn to the audience in outrage, he becoming momentarily the play’s conscience as he looked for ways to leave. Tatum and Mabe’s presence as the onlookers during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking helped triangulate their role as the innocents and arbiters of conscience. Richards gave a chilling performance as she rubbed at her hands, changed tone and pitch unpredictably, and finally let out a blood-curdling cry; Mabe’s bathetic delivery of ‘This disease is beyond my practice’ made clear that this wasn’t just an admission of medical failure, but an acknowledgement that the Macbeths had cultivated an evil beyond all measure of intervention. And Metz’s reappearance as a sober, entire formal Seyton, having earlier been joking with the audience as the Porter, suggested that even the comedian who had asked us to ‘remember the Porter’ no longer had any hope to offer.

Macbeth’s full embrace of his own destiny after Lady Macbeth’s death drove the play’s action to its inevitable conclusion. His brutal takedown of Young Siward (stamping on the young man’s wrist while he lay on the floor, before finishing him), and his punching of Macduff in the face, all kept up the resistance right up until the moment Macduff gutted him and then flung him over his shoulder to carry him out. But at that point, the Witches reappeared. ‘When shall we three meet . . . again?’ they asked, before leaving the world of the play to presumably seek out new victims. That Malcolm was able to bring together the English and Scottish nobles, to offer mourning support to Siward, and to acknowledge the roles played by everyone in his ascent, suggested the future of this kingdom lay in his ability to perceive the collective need. And this is where Knight and Spurgin’s interpretation of Treehouse’s ensemble-as-community mission found its realization – the reassertion of the collective good over individual ambition, planting seeds that the weeds would not be able to choke.

This piece is the culmination of a period spent working as an embedded critic with Treehouse Ensemble, writing reviews for the directors that have then fed into the development of the show.

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