Steeped in tragedy, this historic N.B. fort is now the backdrop for Macbeth | CBC News

The history of Fort La Tour is steeped in tragedy and bloodshed.

In 1631, Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour built a fortified trading post at Portland Point to exchange furs with the Wolastoqiyik. In 1645, his wife — Madame de La Tour, the “Lioness of Acadia” — famously waged a multi-day campaign to defend it against Charles de Menou d’Aulnay — a bloody battle that ended in surrender and the mass hanging of her men.

Historian W. F. Ganong wrote there was “no event in the history of Acadia … which so powerfully touches the chords of our human sympathies.”

Starting Wednesday, the fort will host another famous tragedy.

Macbeth, directed by Sandra Bell, is a collaboration with the Saint John Theatre Company and Loyalist City Shakespeare.

A drone shot of the reconstructed Fort LaTour.
The actual Fort Latour was constructed in In 1631 on the grassy knoll behind the present-day reconstruction, just a few decades after Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. ‘A world apart, and yet the Globe [Theatre] and this fort were sharing some of the same displays of ambition and violence,’ said Macbeth director Sandra Bell. (Julia Wright/CBC)

It’s the first large-scale public event Place Fort La Tour has hosted. Interestingly, the Scottish tragedy was likely written in 1606 — just a few decades before Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour arrived at Portland Point. 

“We’re so thrilled about having an outdoor experience,” said Heather Kamerman, Place Fort La Tour’s general manager. 

A brunette woman in black leans against a reproduction historic bread oven.
Heather Kamerman, general manager at Place Fort Latour, says the play is the largest public event it’s hosted yet. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Bell called it “the biggest outdoor project that Saint John has had in terms of theatre.” 

As a theatre set, the fort is “like nothing you could build.It almost mimics Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where the audience, the groundlings would have stood,” she said.

“It is fabulous. And of course you might get the Saint John fog rolling in for some atmosphere.”

A windswept woman stands on a tower overlooking the Saint John Harbour.
Bell, surveys her theatrical domain from the bastion of Fort La Tour. ‘We are above the harbour with a great view of the working port, the city and nature before us,’ she said. ‘And behind us is the best set you’ve ever seen.’ (Julia Wright/CBC)

Battle to restore a national historic site

Over 5,000-plus years of recorded history, the site has served as an Indigenous burial ground, a French fort, and a nail factory. It was designated a national historic site in 1923. 

WATCH | Inside the rebuilt Fort La Tour, a national historic site on the Saint John waterfront:

Refurbished Four La Tour ready for its busiest summer

After decades of planning, construction and unexpected setbacks, Fort La Tour set to host summer events before August grand reopening.

The notion of developing Fort La Tour as a historic attraction began over 50 years ago in 1972, when the Fort La Tour Development Authority was formed.

There have been countless studies over the decades. Big plans have been unveiled. Archaeological digs have been conducted. The construction phase made headlines. Heartbreakingly, in 2021 an unsolved act of arson nearly destroyed the fort just weeks before it was scheduled to open.

A charred doorway at a reproduction of Fort Latour.
A charred doorway at Fort La Tour after it was nearly destroyed by arson in May 2021, weeks before it was scheduled to open to the public. Since the fire, security has been strengthened at the site. (Julia Wright/CBC )

Last summer, the site opened for smaller-scale events, Kamerman said, as the team solidified partnerships and got “a little bit more ready to share stories and experiences with folks.”

The grand opening of Fort La Tour is now scheduled for Aug. 4.

Introducing Macbeth

Before the big public celebration in August, something wicked this way comes.

Bell’s production of Macbeth is a crisp 90 minutes, much shorter than the uncut script, which can run over two hours, not including intermission.

“We’ve got a good, tight story focusing on the major action,” she said — zeroing in on, and exploring, universal human anxieties and ambitions.

A young man in general historic dress clutches a fist to his chest in the role of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Cameron Secord, who plays Macbeth in the Saint John Theatre Company and Loyalist City Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth at Fort La Tour. (Julia Wright/CBC )

“We’re not all Scottish thanes, ready to kill, to climb the social ladder,” Bell said. “But we all have desires. We all have ambitions. We all have regrets. We all have guilt. We all have fear. The play encapsulates all of it — and there’s sword fights.

“I think there’s something for everyone in this play.”

‘The fine line of good and evil’

One thing you won’t find in Macbeth, said lead actor Christina Isbill is a clear-cut view of morality.

Even in her murderous scheming to make her husband Scotland’s king, Lady Macbeth is “justified in her own mind,” Isbill said. “In the end she turns out to be very human after all. So there’s no such thing as pure evil.”

A woman in period dress looks off into the distance with a tortured expression
Christina Isbill, cast as the scheming, murdeous Lady Macbeth, says her character is ‘certainly capable of very evil, evil deeds, but in her mind she’s not a villain.’ (Julia Wright/CBC)

As Macbeth, actor Cameron Secord hopes to embody a man who wilfully ignores his own best intuitions but never manages to silence his own conscience — a man “on that fine line of good and evil.”

“Macbeth finds himself in this middle ground, where he has to make decisions that are bad — but for what he thinks is the greater good.”

Two actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embrace in front of a pointed wooden fence.
Is this a dagger which I see before me? Nope, just the pointed, wooden stakes of the palisade at Fort Latour. Both Secord and Isbill say this is their first time acting in an outdoor production. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Also ghoulishly good are the Weird Sisters, the trio of witches who prophesy Macbeth will one day become king of Scotland, played by Beth Pollock, Madison Lucas, and Matt Hamilton Snow. 

“We’re a little ghoulish,” Snow said. “Yet when we’re together, we’re a little more impish. There are smiles and laughter, but then when Macbeth’s around — watch out.”

Three actors playing the three witches in Macbeth cavort around wearing flowing black cloaks.
The weird sisters weaving their magic at dress rehearsal Tuesday evening. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Luke Norton, a recent arrival in Saint John from Sudbury, Ont., plays Macduff. He said uncovering local history has been a perk of landing the role.

“I’ve learned a lot,” he said, “about Madame La Tour, the history, the sacred grounds nearby as well. It feels really special to be here. I love the view of the port and all the ships coming in and out. 

“It’s fun to be down here on the ground level, enjoying it in a different way.”

A bald man in a leather jerkin, playing the role of Macduff, stands in front of a reproduction historic fort.
Luke Norton, who just moved to Saint John and landed the role of Macduff, said there’s ‘something really magical’ about outdoor theatre. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Spooky fog, stunning ocean vistas

There’s an element of surprise beyond the supernatural prophecies, murders and ghosts. 

In addition to constantly changing weather, encounters with wildlife, passing trains, and noise from the Harbour Bridge are all possibilities.

“Something might happen differently every night,” Bell said. “That in itself is what theatre is about. I think my actors are ready for anything.”

A director stands in front of her Shakespearean cast, arms akimbo, with her back to the viewer.
Sandra Bell and her band of players prepare for opening night on Wednesday at Fort La Tour. (Submittted by Emmett Rans )

As of Tuesday afternoon just a handful of tickets remained for Wednesday’s opening night. The remaining shows, which run between July 12 and July 22, are selling fast. Good shoes for walking, water, a jacket — maybe even a blanket — are recommended.

The first-of-its-kind event at Fort La Tour is expected to attract people who may not naturally seek out Shakespeare, as well as Shakespeare fans curious to finally see the finished fort.

“Most big cities have an outdoor summer Shakespeare festival — and this is our test,” Bell said. “Let’s do it here, too.

“I am hoping that people from here, and away, come and experience what Saint John has to offer on the harbour.”

A fort framed by white blossoms.
Fort La Tour, framed by summer bossoms on the Saint John waterfront. ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen,’ Macbeth observes in Act I – and audiences in the Port City could certainly encounter either foul or fair weather. (Julia Wright/CBC)

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