Theatre review: Forget the weird sisters, weirder goblins take over Macbeth

The concept of using goblins to reinterpret Shakespeare’s MacBeth works in its own weird way

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Goblin: Macbeth

When: To Sept. 24

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Where: Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park

Tickets & Info: From $30 at www.bardonthebeach.org

In its relentless, remarkably successful effort to make Shakespeare’s plays accessible to the broadest possible audience, Bard on the Beach has added one of the strangest concepts yet to its repertoire: Macbeth performed by goblins.

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Staged alongside the most popular production in Bard’s history, As You Like It with Beatles songs, Goblin: Macbeth sold out its entire run before opening night and has been extended another week.

Three goblins, anonymous actors in black tunics, their faces entirely obscured by creepy rubberized masks, play all the parts. Rather, only two do; the third portrays one of the witches but otherwise sits upstage with a microphone, his (her?) wonderful range of spooky and sometimes very funny sound effects creating the sonic setting in which the play unfolds.

The three goblins — actors' names not revealed — in scenes from the Bard on the Beach production of Goblin:MacBeth.
The three goblins — actors’ names not revealed — in scenes from the Bard on the Beach production of Goblin:MacBeth. Photo by Tim Matheson /Bard on the Beach

Why goblins? Why no actors’ names in the program? Rebecca Northan, the director and co-creator with Bruce Horak, provides some answers in her director’s note. But they don’t actually make much sense. The best way to approach this production is just to give yourself over to it.

That proves pretty easy to do. After some initial kibitzing with the audience, the goblins dive straight into Macbeth, significantly condensed but almost entirely Shakespeare’s text. Almost, because these goblins can be very opinionated.

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They stop the play to argue over the pronunciation of Scone and Fyfe. They bicker about the appropriateness of French accordion music. One violently objects to the “f—ing loophole” that allows Macduff to kill Macbeth at the end, even though the witches have told Macbeth he can’t be killed by any man or woman born.

The genius of the show is its ability to provide the gist of Shakespeare’s tragedy and much of its great rhetoric along with the goblins’ comic riffs, improvisations and asides. However, it does help if you already know the play.

The production suffers only a single significant misstep: when a line in Macduff’s excruciating grief over his wife and children’s grisly murder gets played for a cheap laugh.

The actors do very good work. (I wonder if they resent not getting public credit.) Even with facial expressions obscured and voices slightly muffled by the masks, the tragic power of Shakespeare’s writing comes through clearly, especially from the actor playing Macbeth himself. Lady Macbeth, surprisingly, gets short shrift, most of her speeches cut. The two main goblins show their versatility, comic chops and stamina performing several characters, often simultaneously, with accents ranging from Scottish to cowboy western.

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Scenes from the Bard on the Beach production of Goblin:MacBeth.
Scenes from the Bard on the Beach production of Goblin:MacBeth. Photo by Tim Matheson /Bard on the Beach

Performed on a bare stage, the only set pieces a few mirrors soon covered in blood, the production leans heavily on Anton deGroot’s lighting for atmosphere, especially intense in the Banquo’s ghost and witches’ scenes.

Near the end, goblin Macduff recruits the audience to join the army besieging Macbeth’s castle, helping bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane by waving branches or wiggling fingers on cue. The device proves surprisingly effective. No one has to leave their seat, though individual audience members do get singled out for attention throughout the evening. The oft-dreaded audience participation is arranged judiciously for maximum enjoyment with minimum embarrassment, a key to Rebecca Northan’s previous work. And the audience joins in enthusiastically.

Why goblins? Why not? The concept works in its own weird way. To paraphrase another historical goblin: Let a thousand Shakespeares bloom.

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