State of the Art

Actors From the London Stage: Minimalist ‘Macbeth’

Actors From the London Stage tour every year with a different Shakespearean play. They’re in town this week doing “Macbeth” at UNCC.
Actors From the London Stage tour every year with a different Shakespearean play. They’re in town this week doing “Macbeth” at UNCC. Courtesy of Actors From the London Stage

They are always a quintet, these actors touring the United States through a program organized at the University of Notre Dame. Plays and performers change every year. And if you skip the spring tour by Actors From the London Stage, which has come to UNC Charlotte through Saturday, you’ll miss a unique theatrical experience.

The crowd at “Macbeth” Wednesday in Robinson Hall’s Belk Theater varied from the clued-in (a fan wearing a “Remember the Porter” T-shirt, echoing a line from the play) to the clueless: The couple in front of me left at intermission, thinking the show ended with the murder of Banquo.

You don’t need to be an expert in Shakespeare to appreciate this production. All you need is a vivid imagination. The five actors work with a few props and costumes, becoming new characters by donning a cloak or a cap. The ghost of Banquo, embodied by a jacket hanging from a pole, spooks Macbeth as effectively as if a bloody corpse had risen through a trap door.

Men may play women (if the witches are women, which scholars debate). Women may play men. Everyone takes multiple roles: Even Michael Palmer, the gruffly authoritative title character, has cameos as other people. Actors temporarily offstage beat drums or smack sticks together or draw a bow across an eerie, unfamiliar apparatus that whines and groans.

Occasionally, the five – all of whom have experience in Shakespeare in their native land, as the group’s name suggests – add a word to identify a character. Ben Warwick’s porter improvises goofily in his comic monologue, as Shakespeare’s clowns often did.

Yet they mostly stay faithful to the text, which they deliver expertly and quickly. Too quickly, in a few spots: Annie Aldington, who’s frighteningly intense as Lady Macbeth, rushes some minor characters’ speeches. (Perhaps the troupe worries it may overtax students’ attention spans.)

They distinguish one character from another easily: Charles Armstrong has a hint of frailty as ill-fated Duncan and a martial bearing as warlike Macduff. Cross-gender casting makes us look at characters differently: Joanna Bending’s Malcolm, legitimate heir to the throne, seems more callow and unfit because of her shambling gait and awkward speech.

Reducing the event almost to pure text helps us understand it better. A few lines I’d always taken for granted (or perhaps never really listened to) popped out clearly; I wasn’t looking at castle walls or watching fog roll in or contemplating atmospheric lighting effects.

This approach may be too simple for some theatergoers. I heard one guy mutter “It’s so...bare” at intermission. But as the great architect Mies van der Rohe liked to say, “Sometimes less is more.”