It's been quite a month for Shakespeare in the Triangle, during the four-hundredth anniversary of his death. A marathon reading of his First Folio at the N.C. Museum of History (April 23–28) strips his thirty-eight plays down to their words. And Carolina Ballet does away with words entirely in its new version of Macbeth at DPAC this weekend, following the mid-April premiere at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium (the production reviewed here).
When artists adapt a play into another medium, the rhetoric of subtraction usually arises: How much of the story did they keep? But the true measure of artistic director Robert Weiss's inventive balletic adaptation of the Scottish play involves how much he's added as well. Weiss and composer J. Mark Scearce's movement-based libretto devotes its first five scenes to a vivid backstory for the warrior and his wife, carefully sourced from events mentioned by Shakespeare's characters in his text.
These additions depict Macbeth's initial valor as a soldier and the couple's early intimacy in a joyous village-wedding dance. Marcelo Martinez and Lara O'Brien give unexpectedly pensive performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Their nuptial joy is conspicuously cut short, as their wedding night occurs on the eve of war.
Though much of Weiss's choreography stays understandably close to the ground throughout this somber tale, O'Brien's passionate grand jeté from the marriage bed before melting into the arms of her character's beloved provoked gasps from the audience, expressing the couple's deep commitment.
The shifting portals of Jeff A.R. Jones's craggy set allow Weiss to segue cinematically between the battlefield and scenes recounting the pregnancy, childbirth, and aftermath that Lady Macbeth alludes to in Shakespeare's chilling original text.
Weiss juxtaposes other dark and light actions throughout the work. Pablo Javier Perez's nimble Banquo is murdered as a royal celebration unfolds on stage, before his ghost demands a dance of death with the monarch and his wife.
When the struggles of Lady Macduff (Amanda Babayan) against her assailants bleed into a flashback of her dancing with her husband (a crisp Yevgeny Shlapko), Weiss's disturbing staging emphasizes how Macduff has ultimately betrayed her and her children.
Scearce's seventh musical score for Carolina Ballet dramatically underpins the actions and emotions on stage. When King Duncan is found murdered, the music's lush lyricism (featuring Gregg Gelb on saxophone) recalls the dark rapture of Bernard Herrmann's work for Alfred Hitchcock. The martial dissonance that funds the wartime scenes contrasts with the tenderness of a love theme for the royal couple, and both contrast with the eerie palette of vibraphone and soprano voices for the three witches.
Before Lady Macbeth's backstory brings more pathos to her downward spiral—reflected in designer David Heuvel's gradually reddening costumes—it also introduces a playful element between her and her husband. In an early scene, O'Brien goads Martinez toward his character's bloody deeds with a few well-chosen bumps rendered hip to hip.
These and other choices meaningfully extend Shakespeare's dramatic arc and bring more humanity to the couple at its center. Remarkably, Weiss and Scearce have managed to tell us something new in a four-hundred-year-old story.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fit for a King"