The gates" don't lead through those fatal battlements that King Duncan entered, to the hoarse croaking of a raven. They're the gates of hell. The loser of one last no-holds-barred marital brawl between the Scottish king and his lady will go through them. That's the premise of a remarkable play called Macbeth at the Gates by Irish playwright Michael Lovett that had its world premiere preview recently at Southern Rep. I call it a "preview" because it only ran one weekend. But, it's coming back for a full run in May. So keep your eyes on the listings.
Fair warning to all: Macbeth at the Gates is an unusual play. It doesn't set out to charm or seduce, so much as it sets out to intrigue. It does this on a theatrical and literary level we don't often seen in these parts. Another unusual aspect of the show is that it's the result of a global collaboration. Roy Marsden, the director, and David Lumsden, one of the actors, are from England. Both are respected hands in London theater. The other two talented actors, our own Dane Rhodes and Lara Grice, need no introduction.
The set is simple, but evocative. The ground is covered with dirt and a scattering of hay. The back of the stage is blocked off with tall, rusted corrugated iron, like the kind used on roofs. There is an ordinary, contemporary-looking trunk and an old gothic sort of throne. If you are expecting red lighting, suggestive of a conventional hell, you'll be puzzled by the bluish tinge that seems cool.
In any case, this isn't hell. This is somewhere else in the afterlife -- a purgatorial place, a "holding station." In fact, the play's system of eternal punishments and rewards doesn't fit any schema I know of. That freeform take on the beyond (and on "The Scottish King") are part of the originality of Macbeth at the Gates. For instance, Lady Macbeth proudly proclaims herself "Gruac." No, you're not having a senior moment. The name isn't in Shakespeare. The name comes from the source material -- mighty sketchy stuff, as history goes. Furthermore, Macbeth and his lady have a son! This son is an important part of their conflict, because Macbeth may have killed (or "arrowed," as the script reads) the boy accidentally thinking he was a wild boar.
Anyway, when the stage lights come up, we notice two bodies lying on the ground -- a woman's and a man's. They are either dead, asleep or in a trance and are chained by their necks to stakes in the ground. They are covered in burlap cloths, but we can see their feet are bare and their clothing is raggedy.
Out from behind the iron wall comes Cat (Dane Rhodes). He is well turned out in a dapper three piece black suit and black and white shoes. He is in charge of the proceedings here. He works for the Weird Sisters, who seem to be directing things from off stage via telepathy or a cell phone clipped on Cat's lapel.
First, Cat wakes Macbeth (David Lumsden) from his trance. Then he wakes Lady Macbeth (Lara Grice) from hers. They will have to fight each other. The point being to shift the guilt to their partner and send that partner to hell, while winning a pardon and freedom for him or her self. This sadistic game was dreamt up by the Weird Sisters for their amusement.
I would lessen your enjoyment considerably if I told you how it all works out. Let's just say it's a battle royal, in all senses of the word. There are twists and turns along the way and the end caught me by surprise -- much like Macbeth's final speech in Shakespeare does, when the cornered usurper regains the courage and nobility he had so wretchedly disowned and shouts:
"Lay on, Macduff; and damn'd be him that first cries 'Hold, enough!'"
The performances were intense and assured, the directing inventive and astute. The language of the play was odd -- an iambic pentameter that was at times effective, but at times a bit ornamental and self-consciously poetic. To say someone "scarved" a neck in steel or will be "double belched back to hell" goes into the red for me. But maybe that's just me.
In any case, Marsden told me that one of the advantages of this preview is that there's now time for the playwright to make revisions, based on what was learned by getting the play up on its feet. I look forward to seeing the new, revised, "real" world premiere in May.
- Lara Grice stars as Lady Macbeth trapped in purgatory in Macbeth at the Gates, set for its premiere in May at Southern Rep.