Arts theater review

‘Twas a dark and stormy audio play

An MIT production of ‘Macbeth’ that’s full of sound and fury, signifying the sweeping power of art adapted to the pandemic

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The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s audio production of ‘Macbeth’ featured the bloody knife wielded by the Scottish play’s titular character.
Courtesy of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Written by William Shakespeare
Produced by Nelson Niu 
The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble/YouTube
Premiered Oct. 31, available online

A bloody dagger drips. Wind swirls on the battlements. A madman’s fit, a witch’s cackle, a soon-to-be-queen summoning the spirits: such are the sounds that strut the stage of this interpretation of the Scottish play. Macbeth, we meet again — in thunder, lightning, and in rain. With theaters shut across the world, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of the Bard’s tragedy is a welcome auditory experience. 

The cast members exhibit voice acting that snaps and crackles with character. Shakespeare’s text begins with witches upon the heath to meet Macbeth, yet this version transports us to the imagined walls of Macbeth’s castle, where Lennox (Tiffany Trinh) and the Old Man (Sarah Pertsemlidis) unspool the tale of Duncan’s army like a story shared on a dark and stormy night. These smaller parts, sometimes cut from other versions, frame the nature of the play.

“‘Tis unnatural,” the Old Man says in sepulchral tones, setting the scene for the strange sounds to come. Yet while the auditory form gives the production room to play, most characterization remains true to form. As with many interpretations, Macbeth is a referendum on masculinity. Fear tinges Macbeth’s (Nelson Niu) voice as soft-spoken yet ruthless Lady Macbeth (Andres Molano) questions his mettle when he balks at murder. She later quietly chides him for a public display of guilt: “Art thou a man?” 

Yet Niu’s Macbeth captured subtle hints of regret, calm, and weariness. Starting in a lordly, condescending voice as he learns of his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, he shifts to a thoughtful, soft-voiced aside that trembles as he considers murdering the king. He’s a compelling lead — and it helps that his voice sounds a bit like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s. As the play progresses, Macbeth walks a fine line between public strength and private guilt that ultimately manifests as constant, subtle rage. His asides retain the earlier thoughtfulness till the famed “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. There, his voice shakes with scorn for the world, perhaps even for himself.

In contrast, Macduff (Sarah Pertsemlidis) learns of his family’s murder and sits within his grief to “feel it as a man.” Yet even Macduff bends his grief to revenge, laughing contemptuously while crossing swords with Macbeth. The men of this version of Macbeth ultimately transmute all painful emotions into rage and violence. 

The auditory form allows for creative freedom elsewhere. Like the dagger that Macbeth sees in his mind’s eye, the sound editing fills and frames the scenes so that we can see these characters. As Lady Macbeth calls the spirits to aid in her ambitions, chirping birdsong transforms to sinister ravens that swoop and caw around her. Macbeth’s whispered asides seem whispered right into our ears as others speak in the audio’s background. The sound of dripping blood falls in sync with the dripping dagger GIF on the production’s YouTube link. After a messenger delivers bad news to Macbeth, we hear the messenger choke and gasp, as if an enraged Macbeth had seized his neck.

Such sounds are at their most imaginative in conjuring up the witches (Cherry Wang, Raquel Garcia, Hope Fu). Drums and thunder set the stage for the witches to chant, “Double, double, toil and trouble.” As the liquid boils, their voices circle the audio field from left, right, and center. It’s as if I, the listener, am in the cauldron at their center, simmering as they cackle, chant, and caw. This interpretation deviates little from traditional depiction of the witches as warts-and-all interlopers who literally stir the pot, but in that moment, I felt the fourth wall break. The upside of having no stage is that anywhere is the stage. Anyone could be on it, including a reviewer who thinks that they, like the witches, are only here to watch and maybe stir the pot. 

Elsewhere in the play, each witch staggers their dialogue in the round, creating a cacophony that’s mischievous, even magical. More moments meld sound and staging in this way. I won’t give them all away, but suffice to say that the play’s klaxons and creepy-voiced apparitions are well-worth the listen.

Clocking in at under an hour-and-a-half, the production rearranged the Bard’s original text to create an altered, quicker narrative. While fan favorites like the drunken porter ended up with fewer lines, these changes deftly convey the weight of haunting regret. After skipping past the play’s original placement of Macbeth sending men to kill Macduff’s family, a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth whispers, “where is [Lady Macduff] now?”

Echoing, her question transitions to the sound of Lady Macduff (Raquel Garcia) and her sweet-voiced son (Cherry Wang) being killed on Macbeth’s orders. Here, the dialogue bears the scratchy, nostalgic quality of old Hollywood audio. Overlaid with Lady Macbeth’s soft gasps, this narrative change suggests a clear reason for the lady’s guilt-ridden sleepwalks: her husband murdered women and children. As the one who urged him to take up a dagger and kill the king, she set in motion a path that ends up harming innocents.

For the most part, this new narrative works well. Yet for the uninitiated, it’s disorienting at first. After a brief intro from the scene-stealing Old Man, the play begins with Duncan’s murder. Then trumpeted fanfare sounds, and we jump to earlier in Shakespeare’s: a battlefield, where Duncan is victorious in war and definitely alive. I found myself reaching for my copy of Macbeth to orient myself.

While this Shakespearean tragedy is performed amid the tragedy of closed theaters, this production is not just the audio version of a play spoken on a stage. Rather, it draws creative power from its medium. Overall, it evoked suspenseful fiction podcasts, like The Magnus Archives and Welcome to Night Vale, as much as past productions, which range from Fassbender and Cotillard’s warlike period drama to McKellan and Dench’s modern classic

So immerse yourself in the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s dark and stormy sounds. When the sky hangs heavy with clouds, when the wind trembles in the trees, when thunder shakes the air — listen to this production of Macbeth. Grab a cup of your favorite brew, settle by a window that frames the approach of winter, and absorb this auditory drama of murder, masculinity, and madness.