by William Shakespeare
UNB Theatre / English 3170
Besides having a curse on it, Macbeth is one of the plays that used to provoke people to say that Shakespeare was better in the study than on the stage. It never seems to work very well dramatically -- it's almost impossible to pull off -- and it has such utterly astonishing poetry that it just seemed to be appropriate to read and contemplate in your lap those amazing verbal patterns -- all those "done"s and "undone"s, all those remarks about "what becomes a man," all those babies.
Although I've always thought this was an absolutely wrong attitude about Shakespeare in general, the three or four Big Tragedies -- Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, maybe Romeo and Juliet -- seemed to pose so many problems for an acting company that there have been times when I've thought maybe, after all, we should just leave them on the page. And for me, this has been especially true of Macbeth, which I have probably spent more time studying than any other text in my life, and which I first saw performed in about 1958, when the Royal Shakespeare Company, I think, toured a production of it.
The script seems to have everything: not just the superlative poetry, but a powerful, driving plot in which in an hour or so we're taken, along with Macbeth and his lady, directly into hell: no detours, no digressions, just straight inevitably down. There's lots of tension, a satisfying conclusion without all the trickiness of a Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet; and more than enough action. Yet there have been more failed and unsatisfying Macbeths than almost any other Shakespeare play. There must be a curse on it.
I'm happy to say, though, that I've been convinced that the Scottish play can be made to work. And astonishingly, I've been convinced by an undergraduate class production.
I don't mean to say that the UNB English 3770 production at Memorial Hall was the Macbeth that finally pulled off the coup that I've seen the RSC, Stratford, TNB, and lots of others fail at. The UNB production had most of the problems you'd expect -- only a handful of the cast had real stage presence and control, and only another handful (not always the same people) could consistently make sense for us of Shakespeare's astounding language. Few projected so as to be heard in the far reaches of the unforgiving Memorial Hall. But in one fundamental way, this production did succeed: it made Macbeth into a real, immediate, essentially dramatic experience.
Driving home afterward, it occurred to me (I suppose this point has been made often before: but, trust me, it's new to me) that one of the reasons it's been so hard to pull off Shakespeare's big tragedies in the 20th century is that we think of them as novels. (Indeed, my students, when asked to choose any novel they want to read for my class, frequently pick Shakespeare plays.) We look at Macbeth and his dearest chuck, at Macduff and Banquo and Siward and Duncan, as though they'd been written by a nineteenth-century novelist, interested in creating characters who are round, live, complex, contradictory yet consistent. We want to understand them in novelistic terms, and we tend to construct, and judge, interpretations of the text against that sort of tacit expectation.
What Len Falkenstein and his company have given us, in contrast, is an immediate, visually compelling, stunningly tactile, efficient and headlong Macbeth that never gives us time to reflect on why Macbeth is doing what he's doing. Caught up in the action, we experience it almost unreflectively. Macbeth is on the road to hell from the first moment we see him. His rollercoaster has started down and there's no stopping it. Just as the poetry in the language has always told us, there's no exit for him.You can say, as I always do, and Banquo always does, "Macbeth, don't listen to those witches, they'll get you in trouble," but in this production you know there's no chance for him.
How this is achieved is fairly difficult to describe. Much is purely a matter of mechanics, and perhaps the most important element is the way the company has taken the horrendous constraints of Memorial Hall and turned them into advantages. As he did with Pericles two years ago, and The Trial last year, Falkenstein completely rethinks the playing space. The audience enters behind a substantial structure with a lawn fountain as part of it -- a little waterfall spilling into a pool about the size of a bathtub stands in front of a structure one could sit on. The seating begins on either side of the fountain, running on each side of the hall and up onto the stage. In the middle is an acting space, crowded on either side with a front row of cushions, floored with an inch or so of peat moss and strewn with fir branches, which extends to what would normally be the elevated stage, and up some steps onto its center portion. On either side of the stairs are structures like parapets, only three or four feet high. Overhead, the center of the balcony is kept vacant. There are drums subtle but present everywhere ("A drum! A drum! Macbeth doth come!" I thought as I entered -- and as it turned out that's one of this production's central themes).
The witches are often something of an embarrassment. If we're really interested in psychology, we don't want witches messing in things ("the devil made me do it" isn't the kind of explanation we think respectable). And there's the question of whether you do cliché Hallowe'en witches, or some stylized version of the sort that James I might have thought of, or something modern and groovy. What Falkenstein and his company have done is take them head on. They name the witches -- Water, Wind, and Fire -- and make them the stage managers, engineers, tempters, and the chorus who tell us how to see and where to look. Far from an embarrassment, these witches are the stars of the show. From the moment they appear -- Water, in a slinky leather-look tunic and skirt, rises out of the fountain as the lights come up, and Wind and Fire appear out of the set floor -- they command our attention and shape our perceptions with their spectacular choral effects, compelling gestures, devilish interventions in the action (most messengers and incidental actors turn out to be one of the witches, usually the spectral and compelling Matthew MacLean as Wind, shrouded in burlap).
All three regularly hiss, scream and whisper telling phrases from upcoming scenes, to remind us that they know what's going on. Before Banquo's murder, for instance, we hear "Let it come down!" hissed from the back corners of the hall. (Purists might object that Shakespeare didn't give them these lines or envision any such role: my response would be that it's perfectly consistent with everything Shakespeare was doing to make the language one of the principal actors in his play). I especially admired Amanda Doucet's sexy and threatening Water, using her bodhran and her rasping whisper and her position atop the fountain to dominate and shape the proceedings, and Nanette Soucy's ragged flame-red costume and powerful voice were pretty impressive as well. These were not any witches I'd seen before.
In this setting, with the witches hissing and directing our attention back and forth as the action moved from the floor up the stairs to the stage proper, and even up to the balcony overlooking the fountain, and to corners of the hall in among the audience, we never asked about Macbeth's motivations, or Banquo's. There's not time to think, the situation screamed at us, kill Duncan! kill Banquo! kill Macduff's family! and if we didn't, like Josef Addleman's wonderfully perplexed and courageous Banquo, resist with everything in us, we know we'd end up right there, a walking shadow cornered desperately along with Macbeth, with nothing left to live for and without even the possibility of dying courageously.
It seems rather beside the point to pick out individual actors; the production was entirely about ensemble. Suffice to say that all the major roles, and many of the minor ones (there's lots of doubling, as one might expect) are physically fine: in a play which is so dependent on sheer physicality, I saw almost none of the kind of empty pageantry that often dogs Shakespeare productions: everyone was right where she needed to be. Most coped with Shakespeare's language pretty well. I heard a few of the kinds of clinkers which make you realize that an actor doesn't quite understand the line, but not many.
Costumes were clever, efficient and appropriate, and the sound design -- mostly carried out by the witches with voices and drums -- was extraordinarily persuasive. Lighting was flexible, subtle, and spectacularly effective -- as for instance, in picking out the witches when we needed to be reminded who's really running this show.
But in the end, I have to say that the concept was the star of the show, enabling the company to create some stunningly effective theatrical moments -- for instance, with Banquo dead on the ground, the witches appear with a coffin, which they simply lower over his body, and then as some seating blocks appear, we realize that Macbeth's banquet is going to have Banquo's coffin -- with Banquo still in it -- as its table. And the now "blood-boltered" Banquo can rise right into the middle of the banquet. At one point Macbeth, meditating on the the powers of evil, is looking right at the witch, Water, whom of course he can't see; at another, when he sees the phantom dagger before him, Water mimes holding it up.
There's much more to be said. This production achieved what I wouldn't have thought possible: it made me rethink the play, and experience it in a new and powerful way, and did it, I think, without violating Shakespeare's design. I hope, and expect, that the students I know who were often seeing Macbeth -- and sometimes live Shakespeare altogether -- for the first time, found out why it is that there's no substitute for being in the same room with -- indeed, in the midst of -- Shakespeare done with commitment and intelligence.