Macbeth – February 2007

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Grzegorz Bral

Company: Teatr Piesn Kozla (Song of the Goat Theatre)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd February 2007

This is a work in progress, as described in the brochure, so we had no idea what to expect. I felt certain that we would use the term “song of the goat” long after this performance, but I didn’t know what we would be referring to. It was so different, and so varied, that I may not be able to remember all of it, or the correct order, but here goes. Bear in mind this performance was about one hour, thirty-five minutes long – I doubt I’ll get these notes written that fast.

The Swan stage was filled with chairs. Most stood in a ring round the three inner seats. The outer ring faced in, the inner three faced out. [22/1/08 – I’ve only just realised the three inner seats were probably for the witches.] They were all straight, high-backed wooden chairs. With the lights low, the actors filed on from all four corners to take their seats. As they sat there, silently, the lights gradually grew stronger, shafting down from high oblique angles. I wasn’t sure at first if I was really hearing a faint droning sound, but as it became stronger, I realised the actors were toning, or humming, to create a background drone. Very pleasant. Then I caught a few over notes, and soon we had a full-blown vocal orchestra – polyphony, as the director later told us. There was a song, presumably in some middle European language (although this company is Polish, there were references to Russian songs, and other musical traditions in the director’s comments, so not knowing the languages, I don’t know which they were singing in. Possibly Polish, possibly not). Over this, one of the actors spoke some of the lines of the bloody man (honest, guv, that’s what it says in the text), and the rhythms of his speech blended with the singing to add greater musical texture than I’ve experienced before, even for Shakespeare. I was very aware of the unfolding story – how a mighty force was attacking, and Macbeth rose to the challenge.

By the way, we didn’t need surtitles, as all the text was spoken in English, but there was a screen up on the top balcony, showing short descriptions of what the actors were working on, what the section was about. This first section was entitled “Crown”.

The singing/chanting/droning changed from time to time, but that’s probably the least easy part to remember in detail. The next piece of text was also the first time an actor moved from their chair – Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter and telling us her point of view. This was interestingly staged. Lady Macbeth moved outside the circle of chairs and prowled round them, giving us an insight into her ruthlessness and ambition. As she came round to the front, she was saying some lines which appear to address her husband directly, although we know he isn’t there, but in fact she was able to speak them to the actor playing Macbeth. She completed the speech and the circle at the same time. I was very aware of her isolation, and that she was actually speaking only to herself, which doesn’t always happen with soliloquies.

Next up (literally) was Macbeth, and “If t’were done when ‘tis done…..”. (Chanting still on the go.) This was very interesting. Again, the rhythm of his speech intertwined with the music, and heightened the sense of his emotional journey. And, unlike Lady Macbeth, who returned to the same place, he ends up sitting in the only other empty chair, a sign of his movement as a character. I also found that the empty chair at the start reminded me of Banquo’s seat at the feast.

Finally, we had a song, and then that section was finished. The actors stood up, and removed the chairs, while the director came on to talk with us. First, he apologised to anyone who had come tonight to see the play Macbeth, as that wasn’t what they would be doing. His troupe’s work is based on a tradition of performance in Poland going back to the 1920s or 30s. Never mind 6 weeks rehearsals, this lot get 2 or 3 years! Basically, it’s ready when it’s ready. There are three strands which they explore and weave together to produce the final piece – music, text, movement. What they were doing tonight was to show us some of the work so far, and explore some facets of the play through sound, movement and text, to get a better understanding of what’s going on, and what works and what doesn’t.

The next section he introduced as “Cauldron”, where they explored the magical, witchcraft aspects. Seven witches sat down, with a bundle of poles, also used later. The chanting and keening portrayed grief at first then changed and became stronger. Not sure what that was about, but I did get a sense of the witches being desperately unhappy women – no families of their own, perhaps?

There’s no particular order now. We saw men waving poles around. They had long strips of cloth ranging from red through pink to white attached to them, so they made a beautiful, swirling pattern. Their movements reminded me of Tai Chi.

Family – another section. The actors stood in a family pose with men standing, women sitting and children at the feet. They sang a more cheerful song, while Macbeth’s fear of Banquo’s future success gnaws at his vitals – God, that man can suffer.

Lady Macbeth was being chased by a witch/demon, who grabs at her from behind. Perhaps they repeated this a few too many times? This leads into the “Come, evil spirits..” routine, and gave me the idea that Lady Macbeth is cracking up from the moment she gets that letter. Letters in Shakespeare are usually bad news – he’s a terrible advert for the Post Office – and this one’s a corker! Her madness is evident in the way she conjures the spirits, and there’s also a sense of her later, obvious madness and sleepwalking as being her own creation through the spell she casts.

Malcolm meeting Macduff, with news from Ross, is played out round and on a set of floor mats, and lines are spoken as the actors are tumbling, turning cartwheels, etc. Their breath control must be amazing. I was still very moved by the news of Lady Macduff and all the little Macduffs’ fate.

They used dissonance – half tones – to show Macbeth’s increasing madness. Well, yes, you would go mad if you had sounds like that crashing through your brain all the time. Eeugh! But brilliantly performed – that kind of dissonance is hard to sing. Steve reckons he knows why Macbeth goes mad – it’s because he’s got migraines.

Macbeth and the dagger scene – three actors surround him, and seem to entrap him, so he can’t get out – guardian devils? They move backwards and forwards in a visceral dance, the devils constantly blocking his escape. Once he’s resolved and steadies, they steady, and then leave, knowing he’s set on his path.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth inviting Banquo to dinner and checking what he’s doing in the meantime, was followed by Man & Horse – Banquo being killed while out riding. The movements here were also balletic and effective.

Banquet scene – I thought it would be Banquo’s feast, but no, it was the original one with Duncan.

At times, they used only music to create an image. At one point, Lady Macbeth was tying herself up in ribbons attached to a pole.

Everyone was sitting on tables and chairs at the end, then reformed the circle for another bit of “Crown”, standing this time. There was more fighting with poles – Hells Gate – and they end up throwing the poles to Macbeth, who was perched on top of the stack of furniture.

While this description is quite jumbled, the sections made more sense at the time. I was very impressed with the actors’ dedication. Working on this stuff for so long may seen self-indulgent, but it takes a lot of commitment, and the results were immensely powerful, if not always pleasant (e.g. dissonance). I would be keen to see some of their other work, or indeed this production, once it comes to fruition.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me