Like debut director, Miranda McGee, I have a fondness for both Shakespeare and horror films, so I was particularly excited to see how her interpretation of MacBeth played out on the stage. The production was a little rough around the edges, but overall another triumph from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
McGee chose a traditional setting for the Scottish play, which given the more nontraditional horror elements, provided a nice balance to the production. Three elements came together at the opening of the play to set the tone perfectly: the witches, a stillbirth, and a battle (violence). These elements underpinned every moment moving forward and brought a unique depth to the production.
The witches were definitely the most traditional horror aspect. Their look and movements were reminiscent of the ghost from The Ring, and the sound they made was cringe inducing. Their long nails tapped on the hard plastic of their masks, which sounded like their joints cracking as they moved. However, it wasn’t just their physical appearance that induced fear, it was their repeated presence on the stage. They stood by, visible only to the audience, willing each horrific event to take place. The audience couldn’t help but think about the function that the witches (and/or fate) played in each decision made by the characters.
The choice to put the witches in masks had its drawbacks though because despite fact that the creep factor was high, the clarity of their speech was low. Particularly at the very beginning, it was a challenge to understand what the witches were saying. I had trouble and I know the play fairly well, I can only imagine how someone with an introductory knowledge to the play must have fared. The Scottish accents didn’t help either. However, the audience was able to clearly understand the important bits (the predictions), so in the end, it wasn’t a significant hindrance to the production.
Now, if this production of MacBeth were to be placed in a horror sub genre, it would be placed in a slasher flick. One always walks into MacBeth expecting there to be a lot of gore. One does not expect to cover their mouths in horror as bloody violence unfolds on stage, and yet that is exactly what happened. The blood and gore went far beyond a shock factor. It served to illustrate the barbarity of the setting and the cruelty of MacBeth. McGee successfully managed to increase the level of gore without cheapening the production. This is a feat many horror masters struggle to achieve and I commend McGee for not being afraid to walk that line.
But what would a production of MacBeth be without the title character and his wife, Lady MacBeth? James R. Alexander and Kelly Mengelkoch brought these characters to life and gave them a well of emotion that is rare to find. It is so easy to play these two as cold, calculated killers, the psychopathic stereotype. However, Alexander and Mengelkoch made these characters so much more. They made them feel so much more. The brilliance of their acting was accentuated by the decision to make the loss of a child explicit to the production. By adding the short scene at the very beginning of Lady MacBeth giving birth to a stillborn child, every action the MacBeths’ took was driven by grief. That plot point gave the characters a more complex motivation, which the actors seized on to deliver a stellar performance.
McGee directed her MacBeth as a horror production, but it soars far above “every bad scary movie on Netflix” that McGee has watched. It is a horror with depth. It is a horror with emotion. It is a horror with drama. McGee’s appreciation for horror shows because she went beyond the cheap thrills and shock factor to deliver a production that reaches us at our core, and that is what makes horror great. That is what makes this production great.