Friday 22 August 2014

Making the audience suffer: Macbeth with Hugo Weaving

The thing about Shakespeare's plays is that they are about human beings. That is where all their interest lies. The plays are interesting to the extent that human beings are interesting. That is why people keep turning out to see the plays four centuries later: to see human beings walking around onstage – talking, loving, killing, dying, and the rest of it.

Anybody who wants to stage Shakespeare has to keep this in mind above everything else. The great and holy vocation of the theatre is to put human beings on the stage and to make them believable. When directors of Shakespeare lose confidence in the ability of human beings to arouse interest, they turn instead to stage gimmicks or self-referential theatricality or the Beauty of Shakespearean Language or some other shoddy substitute. The consequences are dire.

The new Sydney Theatre Company production of Macbeth has everything going for it – innovative staging, funky music, special effects, celebrity casting, soaring soliloquies – everything, in fact, except human interest.

It is as if the director wanted to include all the tricks of the trade without ever really making up his mind about what kind of play he wanted to make. There are bits of grinding minimalism followed by bits of glitzy theatricality, scenes of great dullness followed by scenes of furious overacting. Macbeth is a very claustrophobic play. But instead of seeing a claustrophobic atmosphere evoked through character and action, the hapless audience is forced to sit in cramped plastic chairs behind the stage. Once dutifully seated like this, we are for some time immersed in clouds of smoke so that the stage is barely discernible. The little old lady next to me was choking in distress into her handkerchief. In one scene the curtain closes and the audience find themselves – you guessed it – behind the curtain. It is all perfectly claustrophobic, to be sure, but it is not the claustrophobia of Macbeth. It is an attempt to engineer through technical means what Shakespeare evokes through character and dialogue. 

An example. After Macbeth has murdered Duncan, he meets Lady Macbeth in the dark:
MACBETH: Who's there? What, ho?
LADY MACBETH: [...] My husband!
MACBETH: I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
LADY MACBETH: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did you not speak?
MACBETH: As I descended?
The dialogue evokes a sense of crushing, claustrophobic darkness. The two characters seem to meet without meeting, each calling out blindly from within the solipsistic terror of a nightmare. No smoke machine is needed to create the right effect. Even if the play is staged outdoors on a summer's day, the audience becomes wrapped in a suffocating spiritual darkness as the action unfolds.

All that is necessary for this to happen is for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to seem like real people. There has to be a certain chemistry between them. They have to sound like man and wife when they confide in each other. Their murderous conspiracy has to seem, at one level, like an ordinary domestic drama. We have to believe that, in their own disastrous way, they really love each other. Lady Macbeth would sooner dash her baby's brains out than to see her husband's manhood diminished. This is Bad Love, to be sure. But for all its perversion, this powerful relentless feeding of ego upon ego is recognisably human and conjugal and domestic.

In the Sydney Theatre Company production, however, Lady Macbeth is marginalised; some of her most important scenes are left out; the relationship between husband and wife is not developed; each actor plays an individual part, but there is no connection between the characters.

Instead, theatrical gimmicks are relied upon to create the desired effects. Not only smoke machines but also strobe lights; showers of glittering confetti raining down on Macbeth in the last act; the use of the empty theatre as a stage (remember, the audience is seated onstage, looking out on an empty theatre – or, to be more precise, gazing longingly upon hundreds of comfortable empty cushioned seats).

Only a production that lacks all human interest would need so many frenetic attempts to keep the audience interested. Our actors, I am sorry to say, even resort to rubbing food in each other's faces. By the end of it, every last man, woman, and child has had some sort of foodstuff smeared on them, and most of them have also had drinks poured over their heads for good measure. But all the cream pies and confetti in the world are no substitute for character and action. Even Hugo Weaving's flawless delivery of Macbeth's great speeches is no substitute for a Macbeth who interacts with other human beings – his wife, his friends, his subjects, his enemies. Don't get me wrong: Hugo Weaving is a genius of the stage; but he deserved a better production than this.

It is surely noteworthy that the only really interesting moment all evening is the scene in which Macbeth and his wife set the dinner table together. For a few precious moments the whole stage comes to life and we feel that we are looking out at real human beings, since setting a dinner table is exactly the kind of thing that human beings do. In the end, no amount of emotional speechifying, no amount of strobe lighting or confetti, can substitute for the simple dramatic quality of observing human beings behaving humanly with one another onstage.

And, most importantly, no matter how much one might appreciate the spirit of dramatic experimentation, my two hours of hard labour in an avant-garde plastic chair have convinced me that there is ultimately no substitute for the consolations of an ordinary cushioned theatre seat. It is Shakespeare's characters who are supposed to suffer and die, not his audience.

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