It’s been said before that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a young man’s play, and his Macbeth is a middle-aged man’s play. And in some ways, it’s an apt description. Hamlet is a man tortured and torn apart by his frenzied emotions. Seemingly every move he makes is motivated by passion, not thought. Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to be pushed along by envy and ambition and, of course, the voice of Lady Macbeth whispering in his ear.
He sees himself being passed over by those he’s been loyal to, despite his accomplishments as a military general. And he wonders if his current station is the highest he’ll ever reach. When he is finally consumed by an emotion, it’s ambition, not anger or devotion, and his trail to becoming King Of Scotland is marked by the bodies of those who were simply in his way, rather than those who inspired hatred or anger.
“He’s a weak man,” says Michael Leaser, who’ll be playing the conflicted Scottish general in the Flowertown Underground Players production of Macbeth. “He has ambition in him, but he has too much of what Lady Macbeth (played by Jensen Stauffer) might call ‘the milk of goodness.’ He can’t quite jump over that hurdle and take what he feels is his. It’s his wife who pushes him on.”
In fact, Leaser sees an interesting current parallel in popular entertainment for the symbiotic-but-toxic relationship between Macbeth and his manipulative bride. “The analogy I use is Frank and Claire Underwood from House Of Cards,” he says. “Although Frank is a little more in control then I think Macbeth is. He looks at Lady Macbeth and she’s the driving force. She prods him to get what’s been promised to him.”
In this case, that means murdering King Duncan to claim the Scottish throne, which he believes is his destiny thanks to a prophecy he receives from a trio of witches. But as he’s forced to kill more and more people to cover up his crimes, he becomes racked by guilt and hesitation.
“For me, when I play the role, there’s a lot of conflict I’m trying to show to the audience,” Leaser says. “‘I can’t do this, but I want to do this. I shouldn’t do this, but my wife is pushing me to do this.’ He’s reaching a point in his life where he thinks, ‘Is this all I’m going to achieve? Am I going to go any further than this?’ Then he has this opportunity placed in front of him, like, ‘You can grab this. This will take you to the next level.'”
As with many of The Bard’s plays, the Flowertown Underground production takes Macbeth out of its traditional setting and into another, hyper-stylized one: The dark, graphic-novel noir style best practiced by Frank Miller. That change was devised by the play’s director, Erik Brower, and he sees the main character somewhat differently than Leaser.
“The word I’ve been using to describe Macbeth in rehearsals is ‘anti-hero,'” Brower says. “I’ve always preferred anti-heroes because they were the most human characters, just as Macbeth is. He has relatable flaws. I relate to a lot of the struggles he goes through: Ambition, how much is too much, wanting something for himself. I feel like at the beginning of the play, he’s actually a very selfless character.”
Brower has also gone to great lengths to make Macbeth as sympathetic as possible at the beginning of the play, in order to get the audience on his side.
“I wanted to make him approachable,” Brower says. “To the point of almost making him the underdog at the beginning of the show, so that you’re almost rooting for him. Then that relationship is broken later in the story. He’s not jaded, but he’s a veteran.”
Which leaves the characterization of Lady Macbeth, which in this case transforms her into the femme-fatale archetype that any fan of classic noir films like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon will recognize. It takes a special mixture of innocence, intelligence, and cunning to portray a character who’s playing all the angles, and Brower says that Jensen Stauffer fit the bill perfectly.
“When I was casting and doing auditions, what I was looking for was someone who can give and take,” he says. “Lady Macbeth is definitely a character who’s pulling the strings. She’s great at having these fake moments of innocence when she can manipulate Macbeth, but she can also be very aggressive, very commanding. I was definitely looking for someone who could play those extremes.”
But not just the extremes when she’s in control. Stauffer also had to play the more unhinged Lady Macbeth at the play’s harrowing end. “There’s a scene later in the play of her losing it and feeling all the guilt,” he says. “So we’ve got her very confident at the beginning of the show and very paranoid at the end. We definitely needed someone who could play all of those intense emotions.”