A Response: [Lady] Macbeth | Presented by Twelve Angry at Tuxedo Cat
May 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, which seems like a good a time as any to take stock of his ongoing legacy. Spoiler: he’s still relevant. Good for him. Good for us too. It gives theatre companies a back catalogue of rights-free repertoire to remount and schools a seemingly endless number of texts to study — even if they tend to stick to a couple of tried and true favourites. So, to begin with, Happy Birthday Shakespeare, you’ve had a pretty big impact on our culture old mate—particularly in terms of language and narrative—and it doesn’t look like you’re going anywhere.
However, there are those who are suggesting that we take a break from the Bard — although, right or wrong, it must be noted that these two articles are written by playwrights with vested interests (full disclosure, I am similarly invested). The arguments are: let’s support local stories—which arguably have more resonance with contemporary audiences—and that a break would give those who love him the time to miss him. The latter point is somewhat erroneous; arguably, people will ‘miss’ him or not as much as they please, regardless of a hiatus. In regards to a ban, everyone naturally gets uppity when you try and censor art in general; no one wants an irl Cahoot’s Macbeth. And so while an outright ban is (obviously) and overstep, the suggestion opens the debate up to the relevance and prevalence of Shakespeare, which leads to a discussion about cultural imperialism, fitting nicely in with the first argument there, that we should support local stories. Without defending and actively supporting new work, the pall of international influence that Australians take from their colonisers will continue to lead to a problematic internalising of the commodities’ themes and messages — more on that later.
With regards to the former point, that local stories are more important, people—mostly speculating members of the public—counter that performing Shakespeare comes down to finances; however, there is little to prove that his plays actually make more money than new work; in fact, what data I’ve seen points to the opposite, even taking into consideration writers’ fees. Company profits aside, by programming a play that pays no writer, the practice further ostracises playwrights from the artistic conversation, which is potentially more damaging than just worrying about a company’s bottom line. And to no real end. Sure, Shakespeare is universal and timeless. I get it. I love him too; he’s a wonderful poet and storyteller. But his work is also written in a very specific way for a very specific time. One does not stage Shakespeare without edits. He infused these ‘eternal truths’ with a contemporaneity that resonated with his audiences. Anyone tackling Shakespeare now must—and I mean must—ask themselves why this play and why now? What am I bringing to this, why am I doing it? What does the text bring that having the actors come on stage and simply try and tell the tale from memory (which would surely be more entertaining than many ‘adaptations’) miss? After all, Shakespeare himself lifted stories from all over and simply retold them the way he wanted, for the people that he wanted to entertain. For better or worse, we are not those people. It’s nice to see a Shakespeare every now and then and it’s very well written but his ubiquity is almost absurd.
In the past couple of months, I’ve seen Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and most recently [Lady] Macbeth. Elsewhere, Coriolanus has opened. No doubt half a dozen other productions are about to open, have just closed or are starting rehearsal, too. Meanwhile, still others (including myself) are dreaming up interpretations and adaptations. There’s even an Anti-Hamlet, infusing the melancholic Dane with Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy—hilarity will no doubt ensue? —Opening later this year. That last one there is created by Mark Wilson and I am reminded of a blog he did in 2014 for his production of Richard II, where he (possibly) misquotes Thomas Ostermeier (I will simply copy and paste from that and hope for the best) “You have to give 100% respect to Shakespeare and zero respect to Shakespeare. Either on their own won’t work: you’ve got to have both.” Never a truer word was said — and lo and behold, Shakespeare himself did not say it; so there are still worthwhile things to say outside of the canon, what a relief.
Sometimes plays are just words on a page. They can be very enjoyable words. But they are not yet theatre. Theatre and drama are created later; after rehearsal, after the light and the sound and the set and the costumes are assembled and after an audience engages with them all. Together they make theatre. And it’s beautiful and it’s meaningful. It’s political and spiritual. It’s an event. That’s what theatre is. If we are too faithful to a text we miss an opportunity to share something new with new audiences. We miss opportunities to communicate, educate and entertain. Of course, one could argue that every time a show is performed it’s performed anew. And that’s not all together incorrect. Each time we see a show, each moment is constantly experienced in the present — we are never the same viewer, the show is never the same. So, yes, there’s that. However, that doesn’t mean that the audience cares. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean that there are not more immediate works that could serve that function. While I am not arguing that Two Gentlemen of Verona cannot change one young boy’s life in East Gippsland, perhaps there are other shows that could resonate with more urgency with a greater number of people.
[Lady] Macbeth was plagued with obstacles throughout its development. Not least of all a change of venue at the eleventh hour, after the original one cancelled their booking. Opening night, the power cut. The drama behind the drama serving to further the superstition that the play is cursed, despite director (and adaptor) Fiona Spitzkowsky proclaiming she doesn’t believe in them. Regardless of this change, Tuxedo Cat was a wonderful house for this show. The barn-like upstairs space gave the proceedings a haunting provincial quality and an air of religiosity; the flickering candles, the period costumes and the windy soundscape enhanced the atmosphere. A tiny coffin lay in the centre of the action, before being replaced later with a full-sized one. With each new death the coffin was remade. Death begets deaths. There was a reverential solemnity to the proceedings, right from the outset, which was affecting; however, it prevented much of a journey from victory to defeat for the Macbeths. Emotionally, we began at the end and therefore little changed by the close, aside from a few more deaths.
From the outset, the production proclaimed to situate the women at the centre of the drama. Lady Macbeth rarely left the stage and, together with Lady Macduff and Lady Banquo, formed the three witches, a conceit that colours the prophecies and Macbeth’s rise to the top, in a self-serving way. This also lead to a number of unanswered questions though, particularly when the women reconvened after the Macbeths had killed some children and husbands — this was never addressed. Are we to read into this that the bond of sisterhood is stronger than regicide? Perhaps, but it’s unclear. The dominance of Lady Macbeth’s presence was most effective when Lady Macbeth was left to her own devices, often in her room; however, by placing this room up stage, she was effectively cut-off from the action, and not in a way that highlighted the disconnect but rather left her be, while the men dominate the floor.
At one point a character tried to shield Lady Macbeth from the gory death of Duncan (which she had participated in) and rather than highlight the absurdity of this, the play just moved on. There seemed missed opportunities to elaborate upon Lady Macbeth’s exclusion. Rather than bringing the unspoken drama, plotting and undoing of this character front and centre and relegating the dead white male’s story to the background, we were presented with a fairly conventional remounting of the play. Imagine if the focus on her narrative was pushed to extremes and a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque drama unfolded behind Lady Macbeth’s door? Or, as in Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Medea, which placed the children at the centre of the story.
The production values adhered fairly strongly to a conventional retelling too. The thirteen (~ooo~) actors were dressed in well-made period costumes, colour coded so that we might keep track of who belongs to which family; the set, as mentioned, ensconced the drama in foreboding architecture; and the lighting, flickering candles and darkness, flavoured the action with treachery and secrets. And the direction—aside from the three women and the durational stay of Lady Macbeth—was as expected from a nascent company. A couple of highlights included the delivery of “is this a dagger I see before me?” to a play-dead Fleance, and the contextualising of the Macbeth’s grief with the death of a child from the outset. In the former example, when Fleance flees so that Macbeth may finish his soliloquy, the exit is awkward, as though the beginnings of a re-imagining are there, without the follow-through. And the latter is the basis of the recent film adaptation. Ultimately, it felt as though Spitzkowsky’s vision was hampered and suffocated by reverence for the original text.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional staging of a Shakespeare play; however, when theatre makers are constantly trying to find a new angle, an untapped theme or a heretofore unexplored double-meaning, at what point do we stop and ask, why? To truly find something new, why not blow the text apart completely?
The dominance of Shakespeare is not as victimless as it seems — while it looks like the innocent flower, there is a serpent underneath. Although there are certainly companies exploring the texts in regards to colour, sex and sexuality, we cannot escape the white-ness and Anglo history of them. While we should not limit how many productions of whatever show there can be, it’s safe to say that by and large productions of Shakespeare have, historically, been white (probably male) endeavours. Yes, people are free to do what they like now, but let’s turn our attention towards writing new stories, for diverse peoples. Otherwise it will always be a novelty that there is a female King Lear, or a same-sex Hermia and Demetrius. We continue to define these states of being as ‘other’, and that is precisely the kind of hierarchical thought we must move away from if we are to see a diversity of peoples on our stages. We cannot undo engrained ideas about gender, sexuality and colour, while perpetuating these texts in a manner that almost always supports the oppressive ‘original’. For more evidence of this, check out this article on a recent production of 12 Angry Men.
Shakespeare is very clever, there’s no denying it. Katherina’s speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew is a case in point. Originally believed to be about the subjugation of women, there is an irony to be found there too. It can be read very tongue in cheek. Be that as it may, Patricia Cornelius, another poetic writer, this time a still-living Australian, has an entire play dedicated to women who are subjected to the worst society has to throw at them. It’s visceral, confronting, entertaining, and speaks immediately to audiences today. Why is this play not studied at schools and mounted endlessly? Similarly, returning to those initial playwrights calling for a moratorium on Shakespeare, Lachlan Philpott is a Fulbright scholar, writes about schoolgirls giving blowjobs at a Truck Stop, sex on premises venues, furries and trans people in this country’s history. Meanwhile, Ross Mueller confronted the upcoming election, tears apart a modern romance, and writes about modern teenagers dealing with sprawling urban landscapes. I mean, come on, these are thrilling and fascinating plays written by talented people. They also struggle to get a guernsey on the mainstages.
It’s not just about getting a go either. It’s about remounting Australian stories. The data around one-time productions is frightening — hopefully I can explore that more fully at some point when I can link to the significant information; currently I am going off Julian Meyrick’s Platform Paper The Retreat of Our National Drama, as well as upcoming Melbourne Theatre Company research. Is it possible to have figures as culturally towering as Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello without revisiting a work? Art builds the fabric of our society; it is no accident that text and textile come from the same root. And it is no accident that when waging wars on our culture, governments turn to education, history and the importance of mythologising events; see Gallipoli. This ‘nation-building’ rhetoric demonstrates a clear understanding of how important art is to society, while they meanwhile gut and otherwise cripple the independent production of cultural goods — this is controlled propaganda.
The free market of culture not does work; art is not money. To avoid soft power imperialism we must protect our stories and their right to be told. You’ll notice that it is often those who benefit from cultural hegemony who are the ones that argue that we don’t need these kinds of protections, and that those who are most disenfranchised either do not know art’s potential (they are kept ignorant), or are locked out of the debate altogether, relegated to the fringes and dismissed as radical or minorities. The cycle is endless; there is always another cultural import to devour. It’s always someone else’s problem to deal with representation, or a new artist’s turn to tackle Hamlet. There is never a good time to stop and take stock. Meanwhile, those waiting in the wings continue to wait and wait — to the detriment of art and society at large.
So, we have Shakespeare’s plays, which, aside from many people already having seen and been taught, are also perpetuating culture inherited from our colonisers. And we have the sidelining of contemporary playwrights, who are doing their best to engage with modern conversations. What gives? Shakespeare is not going to mind if your, “gritty” “like you’ve never seen it” Titus Andronicus never gets made. Probably your audience won’t care too much either. Do you? If not, then why do it? The structures of his plays are exemplary, sure. The language is profound. Every now and then you see a production and go, wow, was this written yesterday? That’s incredible. But we shouldn’t doubt our own artistic capabilities. Let’s use the tools Shakespeare gives us to build our own new works. Poach, like him, stories and ideas. Fuse them together and build different narratives, new ones, ones that connect and resonate, both with you and others. Don’t be afraid to tell your own story, the way you want to.
But yeah, Happy Birthday Shakespeare.
DIRECTOR Fiona Spitzkowsky
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Oscar Shaw
PRODUCER Josiah Lulham
PRODUCTION MANAGER Alex Guerin
PUBLICITY MANAGER Matilda Dixon-Smith
STAGE MANAGER Laura Collins
SET DESIGN James Ambrose
COSTUME DESIGN Matilda Dixon-Smith
SOUND DESIGN Liam Bellman-Sharpe
LIGHTING DESIGN Jane Williamson
EDUCATION CONSULTANT Andy Roestenburg
MACBETH Charlie Craig
LADY MACBETH Alice Marks
BANQUO Liam Bellman-Sharpe
LADY BANQUO Victoria Mantynen
FLEANCE Thomas Rands
MACDUFF Lewis McDonald
LADY MACDUFF Annie Lumsden
MACDUFF DAUGHTER Harriet Wallace-Mead
DUNCAN Josh Karlik
MALCOM Jordan Peters
LENNOX Raymond Martini
ROSS Aram Geleris
PORTER/DOCTOR Scout Boxall