Bard on the Beach plumbs the madness of Macbeth

Chris Abraham, Moya O’Connell, and Ben Carlson all wanted to take on the Scottish Play—but only if they could do it together

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      Moya O’Connell has never aspired to play Lady Macbeth. Until now.

      “I haven’t wanted to play the part until this production with these people in this way,” she says.

      O’Connell is referring to the man who plays her on-stage husband and coconspirator, Ben Carlson, and their director, Chris Abraham. Carlson and Abraham nod in agreement. All three wanted to do Macbeth and they wanted to do it with each other. Bard on the Beach is where they’re executing their vision of one of William Shakespeare’s most compelling and transfixing tragedies.

      The trio are taking a break from rehearsing on-site at Bard a few weeks before opening night, and are seated next to each other in the main-stage tent to talk to the Straight. Of the three, only O’Connell calls Vancouver her part-time home. The annual festival’s artistic director, Christopher Gaze, offered O’Connell her first job out of theatre school (Miranda in The Tempest), and she stayed at Bard for six seasons before heading to the Shaw Festival in Ontario for 10. Carlson and Abraham are based in Toronto. Abraham is the 2013 recipient of the Siminovitch Prize, one of the largest theatre awards in the country, and artistic director of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto. In 2015, he directed Carlson and Deborah Hay, spouses in real life, in The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford. And in 2017, Abraham directed The Wedding Party, which O’Connell cocreated and starred in. Macbeth marks the first time all three of them are working together.

      “It’s a play I have a lot of respect for, and it has some of the best poetry in Shakespeare, so it requires incredibly versatile, smart, gutsy, talented actors who know how to speak the verse properly and who can do next-level stuff,” Abraham says.

      In the play, a Scottish general, Macbeth, receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become king. Overcome with greed and ambition, and urged on by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he murders the king and takes the crown. To keep their crime a secret and protect their position, he continues to kill people he views as a threat. As the body count climbs, the Macbeths begin to unravel in their own complicated and toxic hierarchy of power, guilt, and madness.

      This will be Carlson’s second time tackling the titular character, and he says that of all Shakespeare’s plays, there’s something unique about the language of Macbeth. It’s been at least a decade since he took on the role, and yet stepping into the character in 2018, Carlson found that his lines were still buried deep inside his subconscious.

      “I have a good memory, but I’m not a Mensa guy or anything like that,” Carlson says. “The stuff is in there, and that’s a testament to the writing.”

      “A lot of people talk about it being the prototype for noir thrillers, like a certain genre of crime storytelling,” Abraham adds. “Five hundred years ago, he was able to really give his audience that kind of complicit experience of what it’s like to be with people that cross over that line and find themselves suddenly in the dark.”

      “It’s like how a dream becomes a nightmare,” O’Connell says.

      “Shakespeare is great at a very particular vibration in the relationship between what’s going on in a moment and what kind of poetry it produces on the page,” Abraham says. “It’s very innovative.…The way in which you get a mental state in extremis, like madness, the way he writes madness in the verse, it’s amazing.”

      Chris Abraham, director of Bard on the Beach's new take on Macbeth.

      One of the best examples of that madness is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in which, tortured by guilt, she utters the famous line “Out, damned spot.” O’Connell’s reluctance to pursue the role had to do not with taking on one of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, but rather with ensuring that she was involved in a production that would offer a more nuanced analysis of the Macbeths’ motivations—something deeper than just Lady Macbeth as villain and ambitious puppet master who convinces her husband to do the dirty work.

      “What we’re working with is a woman and a man who suffered a great loss in their life through the loss of a child and are just on the brink of chaos,” O’Connell says. “Then she gets news of the prophecy and there’s a sort of ripping open, an idea of hope. What can someone with chaos at bay do with a glimmer of hope?”

      “You described it once as there must be some kind of cosmic thing that makes the loss of the child make sense,” Carlson says, turning to Abraham.

      “It’s the magical thinking that arrives in the wake of tragedy,” Abraham says, crediting the HBO TV show The Leftovers with sparking this thought process. “What the opening of the prophetic aperture does is create a context for meaninglessness to suddenly become meaningful. Tragedy and emptiness take on another hue.”

      This kind of analysis and dialogue is exactly why Abraham, Carlson, and O’Connell wanted to tackle Macbeth together, and even though their production is set around the same year the play would have been staged for the first time, its themes make it particularly relevant in 2018.

      “People’s need to make sense of their lives at all costs hasn’t really changed, and neither has, from an entertainment perspective, a lust for vengeance,” Carlson says.

      “And a lust for transgression,” O’Connell adds. “To watch other people transgress and to sit in view.”

      “This play really asks us to look at the problem of men,” Abraham says. “And not just ambition, but the way in which ambition is interlaced with the whole idea of patriarchy and kingship.”

      “That is a recurrent thing in all of his plays,” Carlson says. “Men don’t do well without women. Whenever there’s a play without a strong female force, it’s usually a tragedy. Now, this one does have a strong female force so it’s interesting—”

      “But she does a bunch of things that only a man would do. It begins with ‘unsex me,’ ” Abraham interjects.

      “ ‘Take my milk from me,’ ” O’Connell adds.

      “See, it’s right there in the poetry,” Carlson says.

      Macbeth runs until September 13 at Bard on the Beach.