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On the Common, a ‘Macbeth’ steeped in misery and madness

Faran Tahir and Joanne Kelly in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's "Macbeth."Nile Scott Studios

Few plays force us to fully look evil in the face, and to consider the inhumanity of which humanity is capable, as insistently as “Macbeth.” It’s like war in that way.

Indeed, as you watch the devastation that one man’s will to power visits upon innocents in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s gripping production of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy, you may find yourself thinking of Vladimir Putin and the atrocities he has unleashed in Ukraine.

Faran Tahir, who gave an unforgettable performance in the title role of “Richard III” in 2018′s Free Shakespeare on the Common production, delivers again. His portrayal of Macbeth is mesmerizing. Tahir commands the stage as a brooding, restlessly driven man of action who no sooner wins renown for his exploits on the battlefield than he sets his sights on the Scottish crown.


Macbeth is spurred to the heights of ambition by the riddling incantations and prophecies of the three “weird sisters,“ the goading of his ruthless wife, Lady Macbeth (Joanne Kelly), and his own deep-seated desire to rule.

Whether conversing or embracing, a passionate charge flows between Tahir’s Macbeth and Kelly’s lethal Lady. Kelly excels early in the play — when Lady Macbeth is a figure of icy malevolence, demanding that her husband murder Duncan (Joe Penczak), the king of Scotland, and seize the throne for himself — and she is equally compelling later, when remorse and madness commingle as Lady Macbeth’s mind disintegrates, culminating in the “Out, damned spot!” scene.

Fat chance. The darkness just keeps spreading in this harrowing drama of ambition, guilt, and revenge, as one murder begets another, and then another, and another. Children are not spared. Director Steven Maler and his design team have conjured a gothic atmosphere that is both haunted and haunting, steeped in shadows literal and psychological: Freud meets Fritz Lang.


Faran Tahir as Macbeth in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production staged on Boston Common.Nile Scott Studios

Are the witches (Jesse Hinson, John Blair, and Annika Burley) real, telling Macbeth that he’s destined to be king, or are they emanations from his subconscious? Is the ghost of Banquo (a forceful Omar Robinson) real, or is that spectral figure a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt at having Banquo slain to secure his hold on the throne?

When Banquo materializes at a dinner Macbeth is hosting, unseen by any of the guests or by Lady Macbeth, Maler has Tahir and Robinson stand on the table, facing each other like combatants about to wage battle. It’s one of numerous adroit touches by the director. In the play’s most horrifying scene, Maler eschews a graphic approach and leaves the worst to our imaginations by staging it as a kind of slow-motion ballet.

The play’s dramatic action unfolds in a wartime setting, designed by Riw Rakkulchon, where a battered Jeep adjoins a rusted steel girder and the walls are pocked by bullet holes. Characters are clothed in military garb (the costume design is by Nancy Leary), although Tahir and Kelly wear nearly matching white suits at the dinner where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost.

Faran Tahir (left) as Macbeth and Omar Robinson as Banquo in "Macbeth."Nile Scott Studios

Outstanding contributions — tolling bells, heavy martial percussion, reverberating chords that sound as if the earth is shaking itself to pieces — are made by sound designer David Remedios and assistant sound designer Mackenzie Adamick, who also composed original music. The evocative lighting design by Maximo Grano De Oro and Eric Southern is subtly effective in conveying transitions of scene and mood.


Five years ago, in a Brookline church, Nael Nacer gave a searing performance in the title role of “Macbeth” in a production by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. In Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s outdoor staging, Nacer brings his trademark intensity to his portrayal of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman and Macbeth antagonist. After Macduff suffers an incalculable loss, Nacer builds the nobleman’s grief, anguish, and fury to an emotional temperature that virtually singes the audience.

I’d like to see Marianna Bassham play Lady Macbeth someday, but till then her solid performance as the resolute Malcolm will have to do, although only in one scene does Bassham really get to showcase her abilities. John Kuntz delivers an amusing turn as the drunken and loquacious gate-keeper to the Macbeths’ castle, a bit of comic relief in a play that is not exactly overflowing with levity.

And the couple inside that castle? The power they seek and attain ultimately brings them no joy. For everyone else, it brings suffering.


Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. On Boston Common. Through Aug. 6. Free (chair rentals available for $10 in advance).

Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.