Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” got the full-on Irish treatment at Bower Ponds on Thursday when Macbeth opened during the peak of the IRA crisis in the 1960s.
The action-packed Bard on Bower production by Prime Stock Theatre recreated the Belfast-area conflict in broad strokes — and the plot didn’t suffer for being moved across the Irish Sea.
In fact, Macbeth’s violence seemed all the more chilling because it took place in a relatable period in the not-so-distant past.
Anyone familiar with old news footage of the IRA conflict will recognize the two sides depicted: Black-suited British soldiers armed with clubs and bullet-proof shields, and rock-hurling angry separatists.
The two collided on gritty streets that spelled out in graffiti what people were dying for — to create an independent Ireland or remain under Great Britain’s control.
In this production, Macbeth, played by Alex Mackie, appears to be a third-tier Irish Republican Army commander who already has his eye on the leadership spot occupied by the gregarious and popular King Duncan (Matthew Taylor).
The three witches (Tara Rorke, Tori Grebinski, and Nicole Leal) who enter to foretell of Macbeth’s rise to the top are not depicted as hags, but attractive mini-skirted Belfast lasses.
Macbeth doesn’t yet know that the seemingly ordinary girls are capable of sinister, bloody deeds.
Thomas Usher, who directed this well-paced production that includes a throw to 1960s drug culture, understands that the closer to home violence strikes, the more we feel its effects.
Sure enough, the audience did feel a growing unease as the ambitious Macbeth committed more and more heinous acts to advance his own fortune and then hold onto ill-gotten power.
By the end, Macbeth didn’t just pick off people within the organization, he also murdered the innocent wife and child of an adversary — which is the play’s most wrenching moment.
Mackie portrayed a thickly Irish accented Macbeth who’s easily led into wrongdoing by his wife — despite his loud and blustery personality.
But Mackie made the strongest impression when he toned the bluster down. He delivered his grieving “brief candle” speech after Lady Macbeth’s suicide in halting tones, sobs and whispers — proving that the greatest intensity can often be achieved by lowering the volume.
Lisa Heinrichs was an outstanding Lady Macbeth, using her mocking tongue to lead her husband down a dark road without redemption. Her lilting singing voice was also used to great affect on a Gaelic tune that helped contrast a cheery party scene with the ambush and murder of Banquo (Drue Oliver), Macbeth’s right-hand man.
The play’s strong 15-person cast not only made the Shakespearean speeches understandable, they also helped create a spooky mood in the daylight. The witches were an ominous presence, and the appearance of Banquo’s bloody ghost at a banquet table was bone-chilling, despite Thursday’s pleasant Bower Ponds evening.
This unlikely Irish version of Macbeth proves yet again that Shakespeare was a master at writing about the human condition. Greed, ruthlessness, compulsion, guilt and remorse are all qualities that have, sadly, been replayed so often throughout history that the play’s time period and setting don’t matter.
Since this is an interesting two-hour interpretation of Shakespeare’s shortest and (arguably) most engaging tragedy — go see it!
Just bring a blanket, lawn chair and bug spray — and let the wickedness begin.
Admission is by donation. Macbeth runs tonight at 7:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. It’s also on at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, 3, and 4.