Darko Tresnjak's production of Macbeth at Hartford Stage does the classic tragedy justice and accentuates the speed of the title character's descent into murderous tyranny. Clocking in at just two-and-a-quarter hours including one intermission, the show is period-accurate to the 11th century. But the matter at hand — a man who comes to leadership through foul play and then stops at nothing to retain it — seems apt to our times: think Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein or Augusto Pinochet. Such is Shakespeare's genius that he could pen a piece in 1606 that remains so incisive, and that has a distinctly modern feel, both in terms of psychological analysis and literary structure.
Stripped down to Shakespearean essentials, the violence of the story emerges strongly. This is not a tale for the faint of heart and there are choices made in this staging that go well beyond convention. Some are small touches. When the murderers he's hired return from killing his friend Banquo, Macbeth can't keep from reaching out to touch the blood spattered on the murderer's face. Interrupted by the court, Macbeth then washes his fingertips clean in his wine and drinks it down. The clarity of the choices here chart the spiral of depravity with clinical precision; they justify awful moments, like the marital rape that leads us into intermission. We are spared the sort of spurting bloodbath movies revel in, but the violence is abrupt and vicious.
Actor Matthew Rauch in the title role brings a strong physical presence to bear and delivers the text fast and feelingly: he's easy to follow and makes the famous moments normal rather than speechy. He is well matched by Kate Forbes as Lady M (who played Goodwife Proctor in The Crucible two seasons back). They are mature people, not youngsters, which makes us see that their ambition is grounded in fear that power may pass them by altogether if they do not act now.
Sound design throughout is terrific: my favorite moment was when one witch writes with chalk in air and we hear it. The spare set (which Tresnjak also designed) works to keep the pace moving, but is less effective at creating several special effects that the plot demands. In the text, the witches are described as weird bearded females. Here, they wear bald caps with stringy locks and lacy black trailing garments covering their grotesque shapes, with great lolling pendulous breasts and padded bums. It's meant to be unsettling, and it is, even before the props folks do their best to creep us out with the contents of their cauldron.
In rotation with La Dispute through Nov. 10, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org