In 2008, Folger Theatre’s Macbeth, directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of the magician duo: Penn and Teller), starred Ian Merrill Peaks and Kate Eastwood Norris in the titular roles. Ten years later, the two leads are reprising their performances in a slightly different version of Macbeth that today’s audiences have never seen before: Sir William Davenant’s Restoration-age adaptation. With period music performed by the Folger Consort, this high-spectacle production will tell a familiar story with some key differences.
To learn more about Restoration Shakespeare from the scholars working on the production, you can visit the Folger’s website here .
Sarah Scafidi spoke first with director Robert Richmond about the artistic challenges, triumphs, and superstitions of working with Restoration Macbeth. She followed that with a chat with actor Ian Merrill Peakes.
Robert, tell me about your concept for the production.
Robert: Okay. So, let me step back a little bit to say what the genesis of the project was, and then, I’ll go in to how I found my way through that keyhole. So, the Folger decided to do Sir William Davenant’s Macbeth.
It’s not really Shakespeare’s Macbeth – a variety of differences happen throughout that text. It was highly popular in the middle-17th Century, and it has the social and theatrical protocols and special effects that a performance at that time would have had. It was, for them, quite a spectacle. I’ve said it’s like a Steven Spielberg theatrical event or the Cirque du Soleil of its time. And the Folger wanted to combine all of the different constituents that happen inside of the institution for the first time – which is quite a brilliant idea. So, it is not only the creative team and the actors, but also the Folger Consort and the scholars, all feeding in to the rehearsal process in the room at the same time. So, that’s a lot of people and a lot of minds and a lot of creativity.
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However, of course, my job is to get everything over the finish line at the same time, and I knew that it couldn’t be a museum piece. However much we studied Restoration acting, for example, or Restoration design, we weren’t really able to recreate that. And if we did, why would we want to do that? Why is that relevant right here right now? So, I came up with an idea of Bedlam [Royal Hospital], the mental institution in London – which in 1666, wasn’t destroyed by the fire of London, but was in terrible shape. So, they held a charitable performance to raise money for a new building. I was just fascinated with the idea, looking at William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and all of those etchings of all the different kinds of people that were inside of Bedlam – some of whom were very clinically insane and some of whom were perfectly fine but were in there for other circumstances. So I did reading around these different people and thought this could be a style where the acting could be performed in a large demonstrative, performative style rather than the deep, psychological method acting that we know today.
But I knew that we couldn’t watch that for two and a half hours. So, I decided that there had to be an event in the performance that turned everything on its head, and the inmates have started living the life of the characters. So, it’s quite American Horror Story, in some ways. They are all trapped inside of the play from about a third of the way through, and we change the style. If it were a movie, the focus of the lens and the coloring would all change. You would know that you’re in that sepia tone, crazy world.
And how do the Macbeths function in this Bedlam Hospital world?
R: Lady Macbeth is incarcerated by her estranged husband – not for medical problems – but because he wants to shove her away in a corner and live whatever life he wants to live. And we think the inmate Macbeth has murdered as revenge for a family member in a kind of Sweeney Todd style.
You touched on this a bit, but how is the Restoration Macbeth different than the typical Shakespeare play?
R: Well, I think the first and most important fundamental point about this particular period is that women were allowed on stage to play female roles. That, for us, of course is commonplace now, but for that audience, it would have been quite mind blowing. So, Davenant has expanded the female roles in the play. There are extra scenes for Lady Macbeth, but actually, more importantly, there are extra scenes for Lady Macduff. Lady Macduff becomes quite a moral conscience through play, and it’s fascinating seeing Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth meet and have a conversation about marriage and men and warfare and ambition.
I think ambition is probably the biggest theme in the play, which, of course, it is in Shakespeare’s, too. But consider that there had just been a civil war, they had restored the monarchy with Charles II, and there is a sense of balance needed or synergy needing to happen in their society at the time. If I were being political, I would say that’s probably the fascination with this period of time for us right now; we actually are looking to restore balance. And ambition and murder and blood and these kind of words that keep popping up in the play all the time – I think these are sort of relevant to what’s happening, well, right here in the nation’s capital, perhaps.
You have directed a great deal of Shakespeare and classical theatre – does the Restoration aspect change your approach, or do you just treat it like it’s any other play?
R: I think I’ve had to treat it like it’s a new play. That’s the best advice I can give to anybody: to treat it like a new play. Because we can’t recreate it. Even the depth of the scholarship that we have in the room can’t really tell you what the gestures would be. The scholars can show you etchings and things that are clearly poses or attitudes, but they don’t know how the body gets from A to B and what speed it goes. So, we’ve had to create a physical style for play. That’s been exciting and a challenge. So, it has, in many ways, pushed me to think about how, in acting, to externalize the internal – which is sort of the opposite way to how American training programs would teach it.
Is that how you would more traditionally direct – more internal vs. external?
R: I think that’s how we approach most styles, except perhaps clowning or bodywork or mask work or something like that. I think we are conditioned in 20th and 21st Centuries to think about, “what’s my inner motivation to do such a thing.”
I can give you a very crass example, if you like. If you were to take an actor and to insist upon them having a hump, a limp, and a withered arm for, let’s say, six months with no letup – at home, at work – they would eventually feel the emotional connection like something that Richard III might have had. The physical deformity will of course affect your ability to live. So I think that that’s sort of a classic example of the way to go from the outside in.
And then Folger Consort music – which is absolutely period 1670s – that makes you behave in a certain way, too. Your body responds in a completely different way as you move and you walk and you dance.
Tell me more about the music in the show – did that come with the play?
R: Yeah. For the original production, there was music written by a composer called [John] Eccles. The Witches have expanded roles, and they sing. They have these beautiful musical interludes. The action stops, the witches come out, and they sing about what dastardly deeds they are going to do and have done. So, that’s quite a thing, and I’m coming to terms with that – figuring out how that can move and segue. The music is definitely another character in this production.
You mentioned all these different minds in the rooms. How has that been? Who were you working with? The scholars and the musical Consort, right?
R: Yes they’re there, and Bob Eisenstein is Musical Directing the piece. There are lots of confabs. You have to have multiple conversations in order to move forward. I am, I guess, the conduit for all of that. And then a decision is made, and we try something, and it does or it doesn’t work. I think the collaboration has created something that no sort of auteur could ever come up with; we spark off of each other. It’s great. It’s really exciting.
How do you take all of that information and then direct the play?
R: Well, I’m not really sleeping very much. he laughs I mean, I have fantastic assistants who write stuff down and then remind me. I just have to be completely open and, sort of, channel all the best ideas somehow and explain them to people of different skill sets.
You direct a lot of Shakespeare. Are you ever daunted or overwhelmed by how much his plays are produced and studied?
R: They are definitely. There are 37 plays, and, so, a lot of people want to direct them and act in them. But, you know there are 406 other plays of the same period, and I’m starting to look at those as A. an alternative, and B. something that says just as much about the time. So, I’m beginning to step toward that. We just did a production of Arden of Feversham by Anonymous. It’s an unknown play, really, and I was very delighted by how many people came to see it. It’s really just a domestic drama about a woman who kills her husband in order to run away with her lover, but they bungle every event that they try to do. So, it’s sort of a tragic comedy. It was very funny, and we had a lot of fun doing it. So, I’m enjoying that.
And am I overwhelmed by it? I’m not, really. I think it’s so enduring, you know? Here we are 400-and-some years later, and it doesn’t seem to ever stop people being fascinated by it. It says so much about who we are, where we are, where we were, and where we should be.
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How do you prepare to direct this kind of work?
R: Coffee. laughs I don’t really know I have an answer for that. I wish I did. I would write a book if I could. I really don’t know. I’m not being modest. If I only did one a year, I probably would not be able to do it. There is something about being in it all the time that sort of just keeps me going.
The speed of it?
R: The speed of it and life itself – the influences that you see on the street. I’m sitting here outside of Starbucks right now. There’s a homeless man panhandling for money here. And I’m just watching people as they avoid him, and thinking, “well, that’s sort of what the witches are.” Macbeth could have kept walking, but he didn’t. He stopped, and he engaged. And what that weird or wayward sister sets up to him lands because he’s been thinking it already. So, it’s just little things like that. I go, “it’s still happening. It’s out there.”
What are you most excited about by this production?
R: I’m really looking forward to seeing the patrons of the Folger experience this really exciting and wild ride. I know them very well now after 10 years. I am very much looking forward to their reaction to the piece.
Are you at all superstitious about doing Macbeth?
R: I’m not. And it’s impossible to be superstitious and do this play. I respect people that are. I will say that one of those superstitions has been an inspiration: an actor was murdered in a performance of Macbeth – the blade broke or the safety check on the end of the blade was taken. So, that was an inspiration, because I thought at one point: what happens if the murder of Duncan is either mistakenly or deliberately a real murder of an actor onstage? A sort of nod and wink to that superstition.
Is there anything else you want audiences to know?
R: It’s a short run, so I think people have to get motivated. I think they’ll be in for a real treat. There’s something in it for everybody. I think that’s the beauty of it.