March 18, 2008

The Chichester Macbeth

A week ago last Wednesday evening I took a trip to Brooklyn and left my world. A friend and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Paul Harvey Theater and saw the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Macbeth.

Just to get this out of the way: that was one of the (and possibly the) best production(s) of Shakespeare I have ever seen. I just know that I'm still openmouthed, days later, when I spend any time thinking about the show.

The Production

I have some small background from long ago in technical theater. As a result, probably the first thing I see is the set and lighting design. I never worked in sound, so although I'll notice extremely good, very interesting or abysmally bad sound work, I won't really register good, solid production work. One of the first things you can analyze about a Shakespeare production is the choice of sets. The original stagings at The Globe Theatre were, if history is to be believed, minimally built and propped, eschewing realism for production flexibility. As Shakespeare migrated to film, however, increasingly realistic (or even location) sets came into use as the technology made this possible. Modern theater productions, with their access to advanced staging technology, have a dizzying choice of styles. Some shows remain minimalist; others make clever use of a limited number of detailed sets, and some become interpretive - using scenery and props deliberately different from those which Shakespeare and his troupe would have had.

There are a few reasons a show might go the interpretive route. One is that the adaptation of the show to a 'new' or 'non-period' production is, in itself, one of the dimensions in which modern productions of Shakespeare can differentiate themselves without changing the actual text of the play. Sets and costumes can be used to evoke particular sets of imagery and ideas in the audience; in fact, mere hints, when done skillfully, can serve as 'shorthand' for entire realms of transposition.

This is the path that Rupert Goold appears to have taken. When you file into the theater to be seated, the set is visible, with no curtains. The Paul Harvey theater has a low stage, with seating rising from the stage and the front seats on a level with the performer's floor. For this show, a single room has been constructed on the stage. But even before that is clear, I have to talk about the lights.

The entire height of the stage area, reaching all the way to the arch of the proscenium, is bared. The walls of the room at the bottom extend upwards to infinity, painted matte black to deaden them out of view, but no curtains or drops are used. As a result, the room that the stage contains would normally soar upwards, an open cathedral-like space.

Instead, hanging down to almost head height by cables, are a dozen or so shaded lamps, reminiscent of 1940s hanging lights. The theme, indeed, is one of the early middle 20th century, with grimy white tiled walls and, at the back of the stage, a doorway barred by sliding gates in the style of an early elevator. An industrial looking refrigerator looms against the back wall, a primitive-looking television set atop it, a call button for the elevator bracketed to the wall next to it. Across the stage, around the corner of the wall and past the doorway, there is a large metal work table (almost a counter) and an old-fashioned steam radiator sits against the tiled wall nearly at the stage left border. The walls end both stage left and stage right in a blank space where doors would quite conceivably be in this notional room. The lights, though - the lights take this soaring space, and by hanging the illumniation down to such a low level, coupled with the height of the tiled walls, manage to instantly convert this airy room into a basement. It's definitely a basement.

it might be a basement kitchen, or even bathroom, but it's a service room. At the front of the stage, displaced to the left, is a sink. It is a period sink, porcelain, deep, with two faucets; it rests on a spindly metal frame. The important thing to note about the sink, however, is that the back of it (which faces the audience) is unfinished; the edges are rough, and we can see the plumbing passing through it to the faucets. By this simple and subtle touch, the entire swath of air between the audience and the actors is transformed from open space into a definite wall - albeit one which is invisible to us. You can see the mirror half of the room which isn't there, just because the sink is so obviously mounted to this nonexistent barrier - the roughness of its back shows that.

And with that simple shortcut, a huge open space is transformed into a tiled basement.

Not just any tiled basement, though. There are all manner of cues, from the size and style of the tiles to the radiator, that evoke all the movies we've seen of World War II Britain or even buildings in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s to 1960s. The fact that we know that Macbeth is set in Scotland pulls up the file of associations with the U.K. and wartime, however.

The opening of the show is violent, loud, and begins with warfare - and warfare involving artillery, with no doubt. The television lights to show us uniformed figures dodging through ruins - and Macbeth and Banquo come through the elevator entrance onto stage, wearing BDUs, carrying heavy packs, and with slung AK-47s.


Yep. Definitely AK-47s.

Oh-kay then.

Over the rest of the show, this space will become a kitchen, a torture chamber, a villa, a piano bar, a morgue, a hospital, a formal dining room, and even a train - all without making any change to the space itself other than the presence and dressing of two wheeled tables, themselves transformed from dining surface to kitchen counter to gurney. Brilliant.

The Cast and Acting

The first person onto the stage is perhaps the most well-known; Macbeth, in this production, is played by Patrick Stewart, with all his considerable skill. I have to say, though, that my two favorite moments of the show were both made so by acting, not tech - and neither involves Mr. Stewart. The assassination of Banquo is done on a train - and the train is created by the cast sitting in lines, at an angle opposite that which the tables are always placed (to emphasize the difference) and all in unison swaying as lights and sound are used to bring the train to life. It's a simple scene, but it's done amazingly well. The second, and one of the best single pieces of a performance, is when Ross arrives in England to meet Macduff and Malcolm - there to tell Macduff that his family has been murdered by Macbeth. The few minutes of this scene were absolutely exquisitely done. Michael Feast (Macduff) shone.

I'm not a huge theater fan, but I loves me some Shakespeare. Always have. I have an informal gradient in my head for judging what 'level' of Shakespeare I'm watching, and it goes like this.

At the lowest end of the spectrum, there's the 'reading' Shakespeare, where no matter what tech magic or staging and blocking wizardry, the show feels like two or more people reciting their lines in predetermined order, around a table. If there is any emotional content, it is individual; there is no emotional interaction.

One step up is (pardon my own purely descriptive labeling) is the amateur level. In a production of this quality, the actors are, in fact, reacting to each other in a comprehensible (if not necessarily believable) fashion. Usually, this means they have at the least managed to work in plausible stage motion, and are able to work on their stance, blocking and body language while also delivering lines. Moving up again, there is a 'professional' production. In this, all the elements finally appear and are interactive - line delivery, stance and motion, and technical elements. I should be convinced that I'm looking at a group of people, all working together; and I should have at least a notion of the scene they're trying to convey to me, as separate from the actual people and props on the stage. I might not buy it totally, but I should be able to get a picture of it, and it shouldn't have any noticeably dissonant elements.

After this, there are two ways that the production can attempt to lift the whole thing up a level. One is to appropriate a particular time and/or place in which to set the production; this might be the original setting of the play, or it might be some other time period and venue. If it is using the original setting of the play, then the technical production (sets, costume) and the secondary acting (language, accents if necessary) will matter a great deal. The process of 'transporting me' into the scene will depend heavily on how well these are done, because I don't have a 'picture' of Shakespeare's Scotland in my head. The original play is more notional than representative. If a production has exceptional work in these 'convincing' areas, then it will rise to the level of 'excellent Shakespeare.' It will transport me successfully.

There is another way to lift the production further, and that is to give it a unique flavor. This is even more difficult; in addition to just convincing me that I'm watching a scene in a known setting, a production may attempt to make a point by creating its own particular flavor. This is extremely hard to do; the actors are now tasked with not only making me believe that they are real people talking to each other about real things, but they have to convince me that they are in fact part of a self-consistent world that I have no direct cues for. The best fiction creates a believable world; the best and more ambitious fiction creates believable but unreal worlds, managing to make believability trump realism.

This production made a specific choice, as far as I can tell, to set the production in an unreal but describable alternate Scotland. It is Scotland; but it has some modern technology (vis. assault rifles and pistols, televisions and EKG machines and refrigerators). It is not our Scotland, though; and the ways it differs are what are fascinating. There is a flavor of fascism, not a specific regime, but fascism as it is known by the modern news viewer. The AK-47, weapon of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc]. The 'wartime' set, applicable to either wartime Scotland or Cold War Eastern Bloc, again. The costumes involve uniforms, and there are three major types - and what they are is informative.

In the initial scene, where Macbeth is returning from fighting an external invader (a 'legitimate war') - he and Banquo are wearing outfits which (other than their weapons) are very close representations of U.S. World War Two gear. immediately, when they return to their homes, they change into formal uniforms. The serving soldiers remain in a formal but gray/green outfit, reminiscent of the Soviet Army; the nobles however (especially the royals) change into a jet-black uniform strongly evocative of the Gestapo. At one point in the show, there is dance; the initial dance is a very German almost-polka, but some of the participants break into Cossack kick-dance. Again, 'Nazi' and 'Stalin' come to the fore.

What truly lifts this Macbeth, for me, though, is that in almost every case where I was most strongly pulled in I was pulled in by the actors, and by their interaction.

Completely pulled in.

I learned things about Macbeth (the play) that i hadn't known. At least five or six times I had to smother an 'Ohhhh.....' watching them. This show hit a level I have only seen once or twice - exquisite acting not just rising above the technical hinting, but incorporating it and making it absolutely integral to the end product.

Fun Bits

Food is all over this production. Mr. Stewart, showing his chops, delivers his 'briefing' to his assassins while making a sandwich late at night in the kitchen. He builds us up to wondering is he going to actually eat that? How will he do it without interrupting flow? Then, because he can, he does eat the sandwich, and he does actually finish a critical line while talking with his mouth full. Just to show us that he knew what he was doing, and yes, it would be funny. But he does it without losing the character of Macbeth - who is a man going mad (not driven mad) but going mad, poisoned by ambition. ,p> In the middle of the play, at the interval, we see Act III scene IV, which ends with the ghost of Banquo appearing to Macbeth at dinner. Macbeth cringes from the ghost, causing consternation among his guests; just prior to the ghost's appearance, he sees three of his serving girls move past him with daggers clutched behind their backs.

Immediately following the interval, that scene is redone, with Macbeth's whispered asides to his assassin completely replayed by the actors, but at twice the speed - and in silence. And this time, although Macbeth returns to the table, the girls have no daggers, and the ghost does not appear to us the audience - but he flinches, this replay showing us the scene from his guests' point of view. It's very, very well done.

During the assassination of Banquo on the train, as soon as the deed is done, all the various other passengers huddling in their seats rise and remove overcoats - and are revealed as the main cast, moving into set for their next scene. It's a simple trick to save time and cast members, here deliberately shown us, and again, it hammers home the elegance with which the play is being staged.

Damn, it was good.

Posted by jbz at March 18, 2008 10:34 PM | TrackBack

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