Things you should not expect when you see Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth: printed programs, silence in the theater, gasps of fear, and utter reverence for the Bard’s words.
Things you should expect: to be chilly, to hear some great music, and to have a riotously good time.
Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s singular and fascinating mission is to bring back theater as it was done in Shakespeare’s day. A Grassroots show is quick and dirty—actors only have a handful of rehearsals. It’s collaborative—there is no designated director. It’s inclusive—the audience is encouraged to participate, to cheer and jeer, to shout for their favorites and heckle the villains.
It’s a big crazy fun-fest—and perhaps sometimes it gets a little too crazy.
The tale of Macbeth is infamous as a morality tale and as a supernatural horror classic. A powerful man is told by a pack of witches that he will be king. Problem? There’s already a king. His ambitious wife eggs him on, the pair commits a little regicide, and the prophecy comes true. And then everything goes to hell in every way possible, driving our hero and heroine into madness.
Grassroots delivers the classic tale with verve and originality. It’s Shakespeare for people who thought they’d never enjoy Shakespeare. There was a rock band playing for pre-show entertainment as the audience entered the theater, fronted by the actor who played Malcolm; the foursome even played Radiohead’s “Creep” to set some of the mood for the show.
It’s easy to follow what’s going on in the show through broad gestures, intriguing staging, and the insistence that the audience be included. It’s impossible to cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys unless the actors make it clear which is which, and Grassroots lets you know without question where each character stands.
Where the production falls short, however, is in staging Macbeth with any sort of dread or horror. There are no quiet moments, no places where apprehension is allowed to build.
Where the actors engage with the audience, there is humor and camaraderie, but the story itself loses all of its tension. Actors played the lines for humor, rather than creating the dread that the show calls for—their main concern seemed to be communicating with the audience, rather than communicating the story itself to the audience. Audience members often laughed when characters were murdered. Macbeth shouted and railed, commendably catching the audience’s attention for some of the more edgy moments of the show, but his shouting often went on too long and may have benefited from some quieter moments. Lady Macbeth often seemed to glide over her lines, throwing them away, uncertain perhaps of what she was saying.
Ross and Malcolm brought some gravity to the show, offering up one of the more touching scenes of the night, when Ross brings Macduff the news of his family’s demise. Banquo’s engagement with the groundlings (the members of the audience standing at the front of the stage) was a treat to watch, but he never lingered too long with the jokes before he got back down to business.
Through all this, however, the audience had a complete blast. There was not a person there that wasn’t actively involved in what was going on onstage, and to that end, Grassroots accomplished a fantastic night filled with fun and original art.
Grassroots has an admirable, original mission. The audience did not suffer for lack of entertainment, but the show did suffer from a lack of focus. Choosing Macbeth as Halloween fare for a Shakespeare company makes perfect sense, but perhaps in this day and age, a lighthearted and outrageous company like Grassroots might do well to keep to Shakespeare’s lighter comedies. I look forward with great enthusiasm to see their future work in that genre.
Macbeth from Grassroots Shakespeare Company. Performs October 17 – 31 at the Castle Theatre in Provo. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.