A special excitement comes from encountering a familiar work reborn into a new form. And that thrill of discovery is only heightened in a transformation handled as skillfully as the Henry Purcell Society of Boston did in “A Restoration Macbeth” Saturday night at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston.
A team of singers, actors, dancers and musicians led by the company’s artistic director, Jessica Cooper, staged what is quite likely the first production ever in Boston of William Davenant’s version of Macbeth. Written in 1666, this Macbeth generally follows the story told by Shakespeare, but also incorporates theatrical flourishes introduced after the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660—chief among them using women as actors and employing the proscenium arch to enhance special effects all in the service of creating the era’s equivalents of block-buster entertainments.
Theaters in Britain had been closed for 11 years under the regime of Oliver Cromwell; this gave the post-Puritan theater the freedom of reinventing itself. During the interregnum, members of the royal family, including the future King Charles II fled to France where they encountered and embraced a whole new theatrical style. Spectacle had emerged into full flower. That’s what they wanted when they come home.
Davenant (1606 – 1668) wrote many plays, as well as narrative verse, both before and after the Cromwell era. He put it out that he was the bastard son of Shakespeare who had frequented the tavern his parents owned in Oxford. Though that has never been proven, Davenant very much viewed himself at least as Shakespeare’s spiritual heir. And for part of the Puritan era, he, too, was in France, hobnobbing with his underwriters among the nobility. He saw what they enjoyed and gave it to them when they regrouped in London after Cromwell’s death.
What his putative dad would have thought of his take on Macbeth, one can only wonder. Davenant reordered some scenes and cut others entirely. He trimmed and rewrote lines and expanded characters like Lady Macduff who figures much less prominently in the original. And the witches sing. A essay by theater-historian Robert Lublin reports that “actors were fitted to machines that allowed them to fly.” It would be like someone taking a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and updating it for the hip-hop generation.
Davenant enlisted John Eccles to provide music. And since the full score has been lost, Cooper drew on her capacious knowledge of the period as well as Amanda Winkler’s scholarly editions of English Baroque music to find appropriate substitutes. Some of these come from other scores by Eccles, while others are drawn from his contemporaries including Henry Purcell, Matthew Locke and Nicolai Matteis.
Apart from offering much lovely music beautifully performed, “A Restoration Macbeth” dispensed fascinating insights into the theatrical milieu from which it sprung that were every bit as rewarding as the music itself. To wit, the evening opened with a prologue by Laurence Senelick that set both the context and the tone of the production that followed.
In good King Charles’ golden days,
The Court preferred the Shakespeare plays
Be tarted up with song and dance
(A fashion it picked up in France)
Senelick served as a worthy narrator with such self-penned versifying throughout the evening connecting scenes in this stripped-down version of the Davenant script. He also made for an impressive King Duncan whose murder sets off the tragedies that follow — all of which happen offstage, another Restoration introduction.
Around, Senelick, the other actors strutted their 90 minutes upon the stage with no fretting under the uncluttered direction of Kirsten Z. Cairns who used the various levels of the sanctuary at St. Paul’s inventively. Her strived to present this Macbeth “as it might have been seen in the late 17th century.” We will never know how close she came, but it was very interesting to try to view it under her guidance through 1666 eyes.
None of it would have worked without the firm hand of music director Ian Watson. He conducted a splendid ensemble of eight instrumentalists and ten singers and kept many balls in the air as singers took over from actors to give full musical expression to a spoken soliloquy. Teresa Wakim’s heartfelt rendering of an aria in which the anguished Lady Macbeth finally concedes the futility of helping her husband slay his way to power constituted but one of many such moments.
Interestingly, though the music is by Eccles for another play, The Comical History of Don Quixote by Thomas D’Urfey.
I burn, my brain consumes to ashes;
Each eyeball, too, like lightning flashes;
Within my breast there glows a solid fire,
Which in a thousand years can’t expire.
Not Shakespeare’s words, obviously, but astonishingly apropos. Set to some exquisite, haunting music.
Another repurposed Eccles’s aria from The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe presented tenor Eric Christopher Perry and bass Luke Scott singing against a recorder in a tightly cadenced meter that induced dread for things to come. Scott also sang as superbly in a duet with soprano Barbara Allen Hill. Indeed the quality of all the singing impressed throughout.
The evening’s major number featured the very energetic witches (baritone David Thomas Mather, soprano Emily Siar, and alto Emily Marvosh) and the powerful baritone Jacob Cooper as Hecate as they brewed blood of bat and oil of adder with juice of toad in a steaming cauldron. Davenant clearly knew what parts of Macbeth the audiences like the most. And the rich singing by chorus members Jessica Cooper, Ashley Mulcahy, Wee Kiat Chia, and Jason J. Wang who joined with the named principals, rose to what must have been a showstopper in 1666 as well.
Dancers Sonam Tshedzom Tingkye (who ably choreographed the witches), Zoe Carey and Avia Dias, in Jennifer Boudette’s simple but effective costumes added much to the staging. Actor Benjamin Evett, full of sound and fury as needed, but equally capable of melting into almost pitiable vulnerability when he understands the game is up, brought Macbeth vividly brought to life. Natalya Baldyga, playing opposite, inhabited a carefully nuanced Lady Macbeth whose lust for power blinds her as she gave oft-heard lines a freshness that chilled us. Actors Nicholas Morgan and Amanda Gann brought a useful depth and clarity to their roles as Macduff and Lady Macduff. Davenant offered them as the un-Macbeths, whose solid decency stands in stark contrast to that of the Cawdors. Luke Scott, in addition to his singing, appeared appropriately ghostly as Banquo.
St. Paul’s [Episcopal] Cathedral works visually for a Restoration-era drama, but its stunning barrel vaulting and marble floors make for an overly resonant acoustic against which the singers and actors nobly contended. This piece deserves another hearing in a space where acoustics are more of an enhancement than a distraction.
Indeed, “A Restoration Era Macbeth” is much too good a show to have had only one Boston performance. (A second performance followed the next day in Rhode Island.) Kudos to the Henry Purcell Society of Boston for so masterfully delving into an era and its music to bring us something so special. How about a music video?