CHAUTAUQUA - ''Macbeth'' is one of Shakespeare's most haunting plays. At 2,100 lines, it is also one of his shortest, yet it remains the most studied of all his creations, and is ranked high on every listing of the world's greatest drama.
Yesterday, the final production of the 2010 season of plays by the Chautauqua Theater Company, opened, presenting a unique and challenging interpretation of the Bard's famed tragedy. Performances will continue through Aug. 21, in the Bratton Family Theater.
Interestingly, my review of the actual performance might be printed in this edition of the OBSERVER, but at the time of this writing, I haven't seen it yet. I have been out to Chautauqua, to talk with the director of the piece - Andrew Borba - and with the young actors who are performing in the principal roles. I've also watched the company demonstrate some of the stunning, skilled stage fighting which will make the performances so exciting to watch.
Emily Fox/The Chautauquan Daily Photo
Actors Brett Dalton, top, as Macbeth, and Lincoln Thompson, as Macduff, demonstrate for the Chautauqua audience how they create some of the realistic violence which makes their play so stunning.
I'd like to tell you about what I encountered on my visit, in the hope it will tempt you to venture out and take a risk of being thrilled.
Like so many things about Shakespeare, including the belief that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, there are many stories and superstitions about ''The Tragedy of Macbeth,'' to give the play its full name.
The play was written, some time in the early 1600s. One source puts its origins as sometime between 1603 and 1607. This was a very important time in the history of Shakespeare's England. After 45 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth I died in the spring of 1603.
Since she had no children, there was no way to be certain who would inherit her throne, and the virtually absolute political power which went with it.
Actors lived an even more precarious life than they do today, in those times. Some rulers, including Elizabeth, supported and encouraged the theater, but there were always people, including some kings and other rulers, who believed that acting was immoral and that actors should be - at best - prevented from performing, and possibly even exterminated.
Eventually, it was decided that Elizabeth's first cousin, twice removed, the King of Scotland, James VI, should be invited to take the crown of England as well, joining those two old enemies into one country. In England, he was called James I. Fortunately for Shakespeare and his actors, James supported the theater, and in fact, allowed the Bard to call his company The King's Men. That would protect them from the bishops and other moralists who sought their destruction.
A few historians have suggested that Shakespeare may have written the play somewhat earlier, while Elizabeth was still alive. If so, it could be argued as propaganda, in support of James' claim to the throne over other possible claimants. Also, if so, that would have made it a very dangerous act of treason.
At one point in the play, a prediction is made that there will come a line of good kings, and these are clearly James himself and his immediate ancestors, with the important exception of his mother, the famous and doomed Mary, Queen of Scots.
Many believe that the play was written to be performed originally, in a relatively small, private room, rather than in a theater, to be watched by James and his wife's brother, who was King Christian IV of Denmark.
The story is based minimally on a number of real Scottish kings and nobles, although in the play the characters are very much unlike their historical namesakes.
Many readers have read and seen the play various times, but perhaps not for some time. For their sake I'll do a quick summary of the plot, so the things I say about the play later, will make sense.
The play opens with three ''weird sisters.'' These are usually called witches, although Shakespeare uses that term only once, and that an indirect reference to his trio. They introduce a theme of the unexpected and the contradictory. This is true from their words - ''Fair is foul and foul is fair'' - and also from the fact that we are told the three seem to be female, yet have beards.
We soon learn that the play takes place in Scotland, roughly in the 10th century. The country has just survived a civil war, and at the rise of the curtain, its army has just repulsed an invasion by Norway.
The two successful leaders of these combats are Macbeth and Banquo, acting on behalf of their king, Duncan. The witches meet the two leaders and make a number of predictions. Macbeth holds the high rank of Thane of Glamis. They tell him he will soon be made Thane of Cawdor, which is an even higher position, and that he will one day be king.
They tell Banquo that he will not be king, but his descendants, including King James, will eventually rule.
Up to this time, Macbeth has been a relatively happy, successful, and much-respected man. But, the weird sisters' suggestions light a fire inside him which will cause him to eventually murder his king, seize the crown, and then begin attacking anything he even vaguely suspects might be a threat to him.
In all this, he is urged on and pressured by his ambitious wife, to do anything and everything necessary to have the crown, regardless of its morality.
THE SCOTTISH PLAY
Over the centuries, there have grown up a number of superstitions about this particular play. Certainly the best known of these are that it is bad luck to say the name of the play, or to quote lines from it, in a theater. Naturally, that doesn't include the actual rehearsal or performance of the play, since the name is repeated, again and again.
Anyone who does so is supposed to go outside, turn around three times, spit over his or her left shoulder, and then knock at the door and wait to be re-admitted. To avoid all that trouble, the superstitious often refer to it as the Scottish Play, or the Bard's Play.
There are many suggested reasons for this. Some say that Shakespeare himself put a curse on it, so that in the days before copyrights, no one else could put on a production. This doesn't explain why it isn't bad luck to say ''Hamlet.''
Some say that Shakespeare took the lines of the weird sisters from actual witches' curses, and that the person who violates the superstition has revived the curse.
One version holds that a company presenting the play once acquired a caldron for the casting of spells on stage from a coven of witches who had been uncovered and hanged, and that the play thereby attracted their curse, or that of their former associates. Another says that at the first, or an early, performance, an actor was accidentally stabbed, perhaps fatally, during one of the many fight scenes.
My favorite possible explanation is that if a play failed and was canceled, theater owners through the centuries would seek out a local company which was willing to perform ''Macbeth,'' to avoid periods of time with no income, until a new production could be installed. Thus, hearing the name in your theater, meant that your play had failed.
While I was at Chautauqua, I was able to attend what the company calls a ''Brown Bag.'' That is a presentation by the company, shortly before the opening of a new production, to which the audience is invited to bring their lunches, while the company performs or describes things which will help the audience to enjoy the subsequent production.
At this particular event, the director of the play, Andrew Borba; the fight director who carefully plans out and teaches the stabs and punches of the stage fighting, Tom Schall; and the actors who play Macbeth and his enemy, Macduff, demonstrated how they would perform one of the most violent of the scenes from the play.
The actors are Brett Dalton in the title role and Lincoln Thompson as his rival.
Borba explained that people rarely go to plays to learn a history lesson. In his opinion, setting a play in the distant past can distance the audience from the true content of the play: the rightness or wrongness of the actions and decisions of the characters.
''If we can tell ourselves that these are people from a distant or unusual situation, it is too easy to divorce ourselves from the possibility that we, ourselves, are capable of making the same successes or mistakes,'' he said.
To link his production more closely to our own lives, Borba has moved the play's setting to the contemporary period, in our own culture. That means that some of the violence in the production must be done with guns.
On the other hand, when portraying the climactic conflict between two individuals, the audience needs to see the conflict develop and be resolved, not for it to be ended by a few quick shots. When soldiers lose their guns, they will resort to fighting with knives, so that is how the conflict will be portrayed at Chautauqua.
Borba said that fighting with knives forces the fighters to stay closer to each other, which makes the fighting more personal, and it tends to go much faster and more violently than the traditional swishing of broadswords.
The afternoon we were there was the first time that the fight was being performed on the actual set of the production. ''Up until now,'' Dalton explained to his audience, ''we've been doing this in a rehearsal room, with tape on the floor to indicate where the walls and furniture would be.''
The trouble with tape is that if an actor swings his knife and even a fraction of an inch of its length passes over a tape, it just continues to swing, and he probably never notices the problem. With a real wall, if the knife brushes or strikes a wall, it may pull the knife from the actor's hand, or cause his swing to go awry, or cause him to lose his balance.
The two actors, dressed in regular street clothes, except for knee-high leather boots, demonstrated how many elements go into a successful stage fight. Placing a foot in the wrong place or failing to turn at exactly the right angle, can destroy the illusion of violent combat, at the best, or can result in an injury for an actor, at the worst.
The idea is to practice the actions so often and with such concentration, that all the actions get, what they call ''into their muscles,'' so they perform the actions without needing to specifically think about each and every one.
Many in the audience were startled to learn that, in fact, the actors were using, and will be using real knives. ''The edges are blunted, something like that of a butter knife,'' Schall told us, ''But they're made of real steel, and they're shaped the way they're shaped, so it's important that the actors do it right.''
Based on the demonstration, the fight is genuinely thrilling, if a bit unsettling.