Teller on his magical ‘Macbeth’ at Folger Theatre

Macbeth with a dagger
Ian Merrill Peakes (Macbeth), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. Carol Pratt.

“Our premise is that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s supernatural horror thriller, and should be done as violently and amazingly as a modern supernatural horror movie,” wrote magician Teller (of Penn & Teller) about the memorable 2008 production of Macbeth at Folger Theatre that he and Helen Hayes Award-winning director Aaron Posner co-conceived and directed.

The production with Two River Theater Company was so popular that it was recorded and released soon after as a DVD in a special Folger Edition of Macbeth, accompanied by eight special features developed with feedback from teachers.

The Folger announced today that the full recorded performance and the special features are now available to stream online for free through July 1, 2020, in support of learning and enjoyment during the COVID-19 crisis.

Get an inside look into the creative thinking behind the production with the following excerpts from a series of entries on Teller’s blog in 2007 leading up to the stage performances. These excerpts were republished in the Spring 2008 issue of Folger Magazine.

A Jack Bauer day

“Aaron Posner has an observation he likes to make. Shakespeare always deals with the days you’d want to tell your grandchildren about (if you live to tell the tale). Shakespeare writes about the night you went to a dance and fell madly in love with the daughter of the man your father most hated. The day the ghost of your murdered father told you to take revenge on your incestuous stepfather.

Or in Macbeth’s case, the day he (a) won a battle against a traitor almost singlehanded; (b) became the darling of the king and got—as a present!—a whole new castle and domain; (c) encountered strange beings who predicted he would become king; (d) had the king of Scotland as a houseguest; (e) assisted and egged on by his wife, murdered that king and became the ultimate traitor himself; and (f) seized the crown. That’s quite a bit of excitement for less than one calendar day. It’s what fans of 24 might call a Jack Bauer day.”

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with the bloody daggers
Ian Merrill Peakes (Macbeth) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Lady Macbeth), Macbeth, conceived and directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, Folger Theatre in a co-production with Two River Theater Company, 2008. T. Charles Erickson.

Working with the design team

“Aaron introduced the project and I stated our plan of doing the magic described in the play deceptively, to allow the audience to share Macbeth’s world of superstition, uncertainty, and equivocation. And Macbeth’s world is full of equivocation. Prophecies that sound hopeful have a second, catastrophic meaning. “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” say Macbeth’s supernatural advisors in the first moments of the story. Lies and hallucinations abound. “Function is smothered in surmise,” Macbeth observes, “and nothing is but what is not.”

Magic and Macbeth

“…Now Macbeth really cannot trust even his own eyes to tell him what is and what is not. The image of a bloody knife seems to hover in the air before him and points the way to Duncan’s bedroom. Is it really there or not? He can’t be sure. Then as he does the killing, he hears voices crying, “Sleep no more!” They’re just in his mind, right? The murder and all that surrounds it is as “fantastical” as his first imaginings of it.

Later on, at a party, Macbeth sees the animated corpse of one of his murder victims. But none of the party guests can see it. So is it real or hallucination? Macbeth later visits the Weird Sisters, who conjure up hideous apparitions (or are they hallucinations?) that give Macbeth advice that is the opposite of what it seems to mean. Nothing is but what is not. As Macbeth’s reign of terror escalates, his friends turn into enemies. Even the daring Lady Macbeth—who once mocked Macbeth for being weak—turns out to be childishly vulnerable. She walks in her sleep and dreams of ineradicable bloodstains on her hands that are there—but not there.

Bereft of moral compass, nothing is but what is not, and Macbeth and his wife are drawn down the path to damnation by the equivocations of a seductive and perverse magic show.

And that’s one of the big steps we’re taking in this production. We’re doing the magic in this show as magic, not theatrical convention. When Macbeth hallucinates the airdrawn dagger, we want you to see it, too. We want you to know what it’s like to live inside Macbeth’s mind.”

⇒ Watch Macbeth Online
Streaming free through July 1, 2020