Ian Merrill Peakes (Macbeth) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Lady Macbeth) Credit: Brittany Diliberto

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Lady Macduff is on stage with Macduff rehearsing a scene that doesn’t exist in most productions of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They’re not sure where to stand and how to relate to one another, and Chris Genebach, the actor playing Macduff, keeps calling “Line!”

Just when the actors begin to work it out—to comprehend the relationship between two characters who never even speak to each other in the original version of the play—they get word that time’s up. It’s their turn to go down to the basement and talk to a bunch of academics. 

“Ugh, scholar talks,” groan Genebach and Karen Peakes, the actress playing Lady Macduff. They linger for a few more minutes with director Robert Richmond before heading to their meeting. 

This is rehearsal for Sir William Davenant’s 1664 rewrite of Macbeth, a hit production that took the London stage half a century after Shakespeare died. Davenant adapted it during a period known as the Restoration—both the restoration of the theater and the restoration of the monarchy. 

Theater had been banned for 18 years under the Puritans, ultra-religious Brits widely known to be the enemies of fun. During the height of their movement, King Charles I, whom the Puritans considered too Catholic, was executed under a treason charge. Charles I’s head rolled in 1649 and his son Charles II fled, not to return to London and power until 1660, at which time he reopened the theaters. So many years had passed since anyone had seen the original Macbeth that Davenant’s version became the only one audiences knew. (Those old enough to remember Shakespeare’s were surely either too senile or too thankful to nitpick over the extensive differences in the two shows.) 

Starting Sept. 4, D.C. theater-goers will have the exceedingly rare chance to see Davenant’s Macbeth. The production at the Folger Shakespeare Library is weird, alive, and took years of research and collaboration to mount. 

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Down in the basement of the Folger, a few weeks before performances are scheduled to begin, the scholars are sitting around a long wood table, wrapping up a conversation with the singing witches. Framed paintings of people wearing big white collars hang on the walls and a pink floral carpet completes the room.

“Have we got the Macduffs?” asks one of the scholars. 

“Yeah, they’re coming at 1:30,” replies another. 

“It’s 1:31.” 

Minutes later, Genebach and Peakes arrive. Peakes played Lady Macduff at the Folger back in 2008, when she was 7 months pregnant with her son Owen. Owen, now 10, is playing Fleance in this production. Her husband, Ian Merrill Peakes, plays Macbeth, as he did in 2008.

The key scholars at the table are Richard Schoch, a theater historian and Drama professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Amanda Eubanks Winkler, a musicologist and professor at Syracuse University. They’ve been working on this project since 2014 when they led a weekend-long Davenant workshop in which they “did Macbeth and a little bit of Measure for Measure,” according to Schoch. 

After that workshop, which took place at the Folger, they applied to the U.K’s Arts and Humanities Research Council for a three-year grant to study Davenant’s work and bring it back to the stage. Winkler and Schoch won their money, and this production at the Folger is the culminating event. 

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The two versions of the play are different in a few key ways. Davenant removed anything funny to make the play a pure tragedy, and he created a counterpoint to the evil Macbeths by turning Lady Macduff into a fully formed character. “She’s the moral center,” says Winkler. “I love her,” says Karen Peakes.

Davenant attempted to smooth out Shakespeare’s masterpiece. “Restoration theater was very interested in balance and symmetry,” says Winkler. “Shakespeare was the problem child,” says Schoch. “His plots were messy, his language too antiquated, he had all of these sub-characters running around. But Davenant’s version is as clean as a whistle.” (Shakespeare was no one’s first choice in Charles II’s revived theater. Producers favored works by Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher.) 

But Davenant also made the witches who foretell Macbeth’s future into a singing, dancing chorus of witches. According to Schoch, Restoration productions even featured mechanisms that allowed the witches to fly across the stage.

“It’s got this chorus where they’re rejoicing at the prospect of regicide,” says Winkler, “and it almost sounds like something that could be from one of Handel’s oratorios.” George Frideric Handel’s Messiah and John EcclesMacbeth score sound very similar, though Handel’s lyrics are about the glorious life of Christ (“His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor”), while Eccles’ are about gore (“We shou’d rejoice when good kings bleed”).

“The elaborate singing and dancing witch scene held its place for 170 years,” says Winkler. “And in the 1800s, they had these massive great choruses with beautiful ladies in gauzy gowns.” 

The music has consumed her thoughts for decades. Asked if ever, in all her years of studying, she had an “ah ha” moment regarding Davenant’s Macbeth, Winkler doesn’t hesitate. It happened around 1996. “I was looking through some microfilm and found the manuscript for Eccles’ music for the witches’ scenes in Macbeth. It did not correspond in any way to my expectations for a witches’ scene. Where was the horrible, dissonant music?” she says. “I spent a lot of time investigating the historical reasons why witches might have sounded this way. Watching our witches sing and dance on the Folger stage has showed me how their music works in a dramatic context—and it does work, beautifully.”

This is the kind of knowledge the actors and directors can derive from their scholar team. And they do, for all their grumbling, appreciate it—and even find it intimidating, despite many of them being career Shakespeare actors. 

The scholars are in a veritable scholar heaven at the Folger. “We’re silent during the rehearsal, but often invited to speak,” says Schoch. “Robert has been very warm and generous and has invited us in.” 

Richmond, as director, has added his own layers to the show. He’s set the play in Bedlam. Mental patients are putting on a production of Macbeth, the warden is playing King Duncan, and patients are playing the rest of the roles. “The sewer is backing up, so they’re doing a charity play,” says Richmond. “And the play goes horribly wrong.” He means that the mental patient playing Macbeth actually kills the warden playing Duncan. “When they murder Duncan, the wind blows through the windows and the tone changes,” says Richmond. 

This is also in line with Davenant’s version. “One of the superstitions is that someone in the Restoration version was actually murdered on stage,” says Richmond. 

The Davenant script held on for more than 30 years, and then faded gradually for another 30 years, though aspects of it endured in productions for more than a century. Eventually the British embraced Shakespeare’s messy subplots and side characters, and Davenant went to the library shelf. But many other rewriters followed him, altering and recreating Shakespeare, or pulling out one character and dreaming up his origin story. 

Shakespeare is the 400-year through line, the one who lives and is reborn. Says Schoch, “He always seems to be able to carry whatever we put on his back.”

201 E Capiton St. SE. $42-$79. Sept. 4-23. folger.edu.