Northern Stage’s ‘Macbeth’ is for today

Photo by Michael Hornig

Photo by Michael Hornig

Jim Lowe

“Macbeth” is not only one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s one that asks among the most contemporary and troubling questions.

“One of the things that ‘Macbeth’ gets particularly grippingly is this question of how much control we actually have over the progress of our lives and over the world we live in,” explains veteran Shakespeare director Stephen Brown-Fried.

“There’s this question at the heart of the play: “Who is actually controlling these events?”

Brown-Fried is directing Northern Stage’s contemporary two-hour production of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Sept. 28-Oct. 23 at the Barrette Center for the Arts, opening the White River Junction professional theater company’s 20th season.

“We produce bold re-imaginings of classic plays as well as new popular hits, and we focus our attention on work that resonates with our community,” says Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director. “This ‘Macbeth’ reflects our world, steeped in political anxiety, war and terror; our audiences will be taken on a powerful journey of tragic ambition against the backdrop of modern warfare. Stephen Brown-Fried’s production dares us to recognize ourselves in Shakespeare’s masterpiece.”

Likely premiered in 1606, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” tells the story of how the brave Scottish general Macbeth, inspired by witches’ prophecy and Lady Macbeth, murders his way to the throne. Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven to madness in the bloodbath that follows.

Who is in control? Who is driving these things?

Early on in this production, Brown-Fried directed these questions to nearby Dartmouth College professor emeritus Peter Saccio.

“What Peter made me understand is that actually the production shouldn’t really answer that question. That’s the question the production wants to pose to the audience,” Brown-Fried said in a phone interview.

“So my hope is that we’re going leave the audience wondering the answer, not knowing it.”

Shakespeare was writing at a time when religious ideas about predestination and man’s relationship to God were beginning to give way to more secular humanist ideas that would come to define the Renaissance.

“And so, that question of free will is the whole thing,” Brown-Fried said. “Today, in the midst of a world that becomes increasingly difficult to understand, we’re surrounded by events that make us feel powerless. I think it is a question that we’re still moved by.”

Therein lies the role of the prophetic witches. Brown-Fried cited a book by scholar James Shapiro, “The Year of Lear,” about 1606, when Shakespeare wrote “Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

“What Shapiro points out was that the fascination was that people were eager to identify the origin of evil, and really what all the focus in witchcraft was about was people needing to be able to point to a cause for incomprehensibly evil events,” Brown-Fried said.

“So, another of the play’s focuses is what is the origin of evil? And how does a good person come to become a genocidal tyrant?”

Brown-Fried thinks about all these ideas, but once he gets into rehearsal, it’s all about telling the story.

“And you hope on the other end of it some of these ideas come out of the storytelling,” he said.

And Brown-Fried aims to tell a story that today’s audiences can relate to — without losing what makes Shakespeare great.

“There are some in classical theater who think one ought not deviate,” Brown-Fried said. “For me, it comes to honoring the intention of the piece.”

Northern Stage’s is a significantly cut production, but carefully so.

“I actually wouldn’t consider it a radical approach to the play — it’s a modern production,” Brown-Fried said. “The more I thought about the play, the more immediate I found it all.”

It’s telling that “Macbeth” was written at the time of the Gunpowder Treason Plot of 1605.

“It was thwarted, but had it gone through, it was the closest thing Jacobean England had to our 9/11. It was after that a lot of political anxiety and terror came about.”

“With many of Shakespeare’s plays, not all of them, I find myself asking as a director, what would this look like if it happened today?” Brown-Fried said. “The more I thought about ‘Macbeth,’ the more terrifying it became.”

A post-show reception for audience members with the cast follows the opening night performance on Saturday, Oct. 1. A companion event, Spot On Series Conversation: “Shakespeare in the Making,” will be presented from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, led by the creative team, free to ticket holders. An optional 20-minute post-show conversation with the company follows performances Oct. 4-22. Northern Stage is launching a new “Access for All” $5 ticket program for qualifying patrons with this production (information on the website).

Northern Stage

Northern Stage presents William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Sept. 28-Oct. 23 at the Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St. in White River Junction. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays, with various 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets are $30-$55 ($20 Oct. 4), $15 for students; call 802-296-7000, or go online to