The performers of Theater Zuidpool’s Macbeth are clearly talented. Powerful vocals, intriguing phrasing, solid musicianship. Yet, that talent was put to the purpose of some kind of experiment, a way to make Shakespeare more accessible, perhaps. I don’t think it worked very well.
The show was at the beautiful and cavernous Thalia Hall, for a two-night “pop-up” performance. The lights went down, and the stage was bathed in red. A haunting melody that reached dizzying heights filled the room.
But then the singing stopped. Accompanied by various creepy soundtracks, the performers began to act out a condensed version of Macbeth, a greatest hits. Their faces were mostly in shadow, lit only by a gash of white side light. They didn’t interact with each other, they stared straight ahead. They sang into their mics, about five feet from the edge of the stage. They never came an inch closer.
In heavily accented English, the performers rattled off text. They seemed lost in the rhythm of the language, making it difficult to discern what they were saying. There were moments when the stylized characterizations would settle into something honest. But they wouldn’t last long, and were quickly subsumed, like a drowning animal who breaks the surface for a brief moment, only to be sucked back into the undertow.
High on the back wall, a projection of stage directions was the only true guide, for the novice, to what was going on. Enter three witches. The ghost of Banquo appears. Macbeth is slain.
There was a moment when I wondered if the experiment was an attempt to reduce Macbeth to a purely sonic experience. If so, it would appear they don’t find much nuance in the play. The actors made every on-the-nose choice to hype the nightmare, but not the character’s experience of it. Every tense moment was cued for us by a screech of guitar or creepy plucking or the crash of a cymbal. There was no room to experience anything new.
You can set Shakespeare anywhere you want, dress the characters however you choose. Impress upon the audience any political or social context you feel is relevant, and it’ll still work. But if you don’t let the actors play with each other and the audience, if you stop them from using their body to tell the story, if you reduce it to some clever experiment, then the whole thing crumbles into terrible cliché. Call it Shakespeare’s revenge.
At the end, my friend, a complete Macbeth novice, turned to me and said, “I had no idea what was going on. Someone died?” I just shrugged, as we gathered our things to leave.
Theater Zuidpool’s Macbeth played at Thalia Hall August 21 and 22 at 8:30pm.