Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park – Canada's longest-running outdoor theatre event, now in its 31st year – has always been a joy to attend on a warm summer night. In recent years, however, the source of the pleasure seems to be shifting from the setting to the Shakespeare.
Following on the heels of Richard Rose's rejuvenated A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, we now get the short, sharp shock of Ker Wells's smart and streamlined production of Macbeth.
Hugh Thompson, a lauded Nova Scotia-based actor rarely seen in Ontario, plays the title character and, with thick arms and beard, he immediately embodies him better than more well-known actors such as Patrick Stewart or Colm Feore I've seen in the role.
It's rare to find a thespian who can do justice to both Macbeth's brutal and cerebral sides, but Thompson navigates the paradoxes of the character by playing him as a man of action who is learning to think as he murders his way in and out of power. He fashions the Red King's monologues into voyages of discovery – and while, at times, he seems too understated, it beats the opposite.
Wells, the director, is one of the first two graduates from a new directing program run by York University with Canadian Stage; the other, Ted Witzel, will be directing The Taming of the Shrew in repertory in High Park, but that doesn't open for a couple of weeks.
At first, Wells seems very much the student trying to impress his teachers. There's an overwhelming amount of choreographed movement in the opening and way too many lighting cues for a production that begins in the daylight. My initial thought was: Why is Stratford staging Romeo and Juliet indoors as if it is outdoors, while Canadian Stage is staging Macbeth outdoors as if it were indoors?
As "thick night" comes to High Park and Banquo dies, however, Wells's production begins to grip with its cable-horror aesthetic – that is, Celtic warriors straight out of Game of Thrones and masked witches that look and sound like zombies from The Walking Dead.
There is, famously, a missing baby at the centre of Macbeth. We are told Lady Macbeth has breastfed and that the couple are childless, but little else is said about what that means. Wells's production fills in the blanks by having ghostly children pop up everywhere.
The witches rock bundles of red cloth in their arms, while the owl's cry that frightens Lady Macbeth is a child's scream. The apparition who tells Macbeth that "none of woman born" will harm him is a spooky puppet that emerges from a cradle rather than a cauldron, then later reappears chillingly in battle.
There's also a bit of added business involving Macbeth and the death of his nemesis Macduff's family that I simply don't want to ruin. It humanizes the antihero at his worst moment and allows the play to end in a fresh way.
The overall suggestion is that the Macbeths lost their moral compass along with their child and that, in particular, they have a perverted idea of manliness because Macbeth has not fully experienced fatherhood. Macduff, meanwhile, knows better. When he learns of the death of "all my pretty chickens," he tells Malcolm – son of the king Macbeth assassinated – that he will dispute it like a man, "but I must also feel it as a man." It's a moving moment here – the best-acted scene in the play, in fact, thanks to Ryan Hollyman's honourable Macduff.
Philippa Domville's Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is too underdone until her sleepwalking scene, which turns into a piece of overdone sleep-choreography. But many of the smaller parts have spark. Greg Gale brings particular flavour to Malcolm – always chewing on something or another, a physical representation of what's going on in his head. Here's a guy who thinks before he acts, raised to be a king, unlike Macbeth.
The diminutive Jennifer Dzialoszynski deserves a mention, as she usually does, for playing a number of children, and voicing the otherworldly ones, while Thomas Olajide makes a slithery impression as Rosse, here mixed together with one of the murderers. Turning this noble into a double-crosser, if nothing else, makes the scene where he briefly lies to Macduff about his family's fate make sense for once – equivocation rather than hesitation.
It's great to see Shakespeare in High Park branch out into tragedies beyond Romeo and Juliet, but parents will have to decide whether their children are old enough to attend. There are generous spurts of blood, the masks and puppets are quite creepy, and the prop head trotted out at the end is the most realistic I've ever seen. (Props to prop-maker Alex Vass.) My feeling has always been that the more adult you stage Shakespeare, the more likely you are to really interest older children and teens.