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There Will Be Blood at Cameri Theater

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

From a thematic perspective, William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is another play in which the playwright thrusts a military man into the political or social arena, and shows how fearless military leaders for whom death lurks at every corner lose all composure when they can't solve conflicts by force of the sword or fist. That's how it is in "Othello," "Richard III," "Much Ado about Nothing" and even "Coriolanus." The protagonists meet with failure when they have to be either lovers or politicians.

In the case of "Macbeth," Shakespeare also injects some of the politics of his time. The play is one of his shortest, written during the early years of the reign of James I over England and Scotland in the early 1600s. Until he was made king of England with the death of Elizabeth I, the monarch had simply been James VI of Scotland. And in the play, Shakespeare writes of rebellion against a civilian ruler, a king of Scotland (played at the Cameri Theater by Eli Gorenstein, who exudes goodwill and generosity in his role as King Duncan and appears in contemporary civilian dress). Macbeth himself (played by Gil Frank), who crushes the rebellion on the battlefield, murders the king and when he takes over his throne, he dons a military uniform complete with officer's cap. According to the plot of the play, by the end order is restored, Malcolm (King Duncan’s son) who had escaped to England when his father was murdered, assumes control of Scotland with England’s blessing, echoing the path taken by James.

In this production, artistic director Omri Nitzan also adds something only hinted at in the play. While Malcolm (played by Eran Mor) removes his military attire to the sounds of "God Save the King," revealing a civilian suit underneath, ascending to the throne, as it were. Fleance, the son of Banquo, appears at his side with a gold crown on his head, just as the witches in the play showed Macbeth. They were hinting that the fight over the crown, power and inheritance had not ended, but would in fact resume. From that standpoint, Macbeth and his lust for power is just a tool to a larger power play.

Of all Shakespeare's plays, this one already presents the director with the biggest challenge in the first scene, with the three witches declaring "fair is foul, and foul is fair." The solutions devised by Nitzan and those who designed the production (set designer Michael Karamenko, costume designer Orna Smorgonsky, lighting designer Keren Granek and music director Amit Poznansky) were related to the choice of theater and its design, resulting from the choice of style, and in turn shaping it.

Great intimacy

Nitzan inaugurated Cameri's third stage and its revolving seats for the audience with his production of "Hamlet" - acted around the spectators and among them, and which created a sense of intimacy. Now, eight years later, the theater has been transformed into a kind of broad and not particularly deep arena stage. The audience is spread out in three blocs of seats. The characters get to the stage from the "outside," via the two aisles from behind the audience. This provides a sense of intimacy between the audience and actors and, to a large degree, eliminates any prospect of theatrical mystery through the use of effects (such as fog, lighting or music).

As a result, the choice of the auditorium dictated how the world of the witches is depicted, essentially losing its existence as a separate entity in this production. Rona Lee Shimon, Yarden Bracha and Edna Balilius are witches who are also whores, nurses, ladies of the court and servants. In the first scene, which is itself shortened, they appear - with Gorgon-esque hair from Greek mythology and frightening makeup - from a small hole in the stage (Karamenko honed his ability to find brilliant solutions to technical challenges during his time at the Gesher Theater). They also appear as witches in the scene when Macbeth's future is foretold near the end, when the witches change their form, and both times we can assume that they exist as witches only in Macbeth’s imagination. Whenever they appear on stage the audience can still see that it is them, but in the main scene in which they predict the future - and on which the key plotline is based - they sound to Macbeth and Banquo like highway prostitutes as the exhausted protagonists return from battle. This requires that all of the scenes in which the witches appear independently, bar the two mentioned above, are cut - and that includes forgoing the character of the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate.

In the festive scene after the murder, Macbeth imagines the spirit of a bloodied Banquo. The others sitting around the table don't see him. Here the director had to decide whether the audience would see Banquo or not. Nitzan decided that they would. Ohad Shachar (who from the outset plays Banquo naturally, humanely and unmediated, in contrast to Macbeth's restraint) looks in this scene like a character from a horror movie, pouring Macbeth a thick glass of blood that overflows. This scene, like the other supernatural ones (such as the appearance of Banquo's offspring), is expressly theatrical, in exaggerated, artificial supernatural style. It is clearly out of Macbeth's disturbed and turbulent imagination, and only appears intermittently.

This production doesn't obscure the fact that this is theater creating moments of illusion. It is performed by a small group of actors, some of whom do double-duty, because in this small space no one would delude himself into thinking of this as a sort of demonstrable "reality" other than as a theatrical experience. That is Nitzan's stylistic concept, as I understand it.

The choice of cast for the play is clearly interpretive. Stephen Greenblatt wrote in his biography of Shakespeare that the Macbeths are the only functional married couple in the entire Shakespeare canon. One can see them opposite each other: a seasoned, mature and experienced actor projecting masculinity, as Gil Frank does; opposite him, Ruthie Asarsai, young, beautiful, different and projecting fervor and passion - or power, or sex, or both - making it easier for the audience to believe that something is really happening between the two.

After the murder, to which she prodded her hesitant spouse, Lady Macbeth learns from her husband of the witches’ prophesy but not the complete picture - not about the temporary duration of his reign, and as each grasps the other's bloody hand, it is totally clear that this death orgy will turn to passionate sex. He planted the seed of murder in the couplehoods’ soil; she nurtured it and made it blossom in blood. She was eager and ready to enjoy the bloom of power and provide her support when he faltered.

Lady Macbeth, in Asarsai’s version, knows how to use her sexuality and is prepared to do anything to coax her husband to realize his aspirations - her aspirations. But once he needs to move beyond the bloodletting and deal with the consequences beyond the household, in the palace, Lady Macbeth collapses almost immediately. The doubts that were Macbeth's lot before the murder haunt her later, leading her to insanity and suicide.

The success of Frank in the role of Macbeth is unsurprising. His qualities are well known, and he demonstrated his ability to handle classic texts only recently, as Bolingbroke in "Richard II." I hope we see him in other classic roles. The casting of the young Asarsai was a gamble that paid off entirely. The combination and chemistry of the two provided added value.

Ultimately, after the director and the actors do their thing, it is up to the members of the audience to decide if what they saw was, as an anguished Macbeth puts it:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

In my opinion, this was 100 minutes of fascinating theater, full of detail and at times deeply moving.

The Scottish ploy: Ruthie Arsasi and Gil Frank shine in the Cameris production of Macbeth. Credit: Gerard Allon

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