Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Macbeth : A review

The new play by Cheek by Jowl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
But how can you modernize such a classic? The director Declan Donnellan expressed this mostly through a meagre set and simple costumes. The set as everyone would imagine for a Shakespearian play was simply not there. No castle, no forest, there was nothing on the stage except for a black curtain and some wooden boxes. And also the costumes were not the opulent ones that everyone had in mind, but just black robes. Even though these elements clearly added a sense of mystery to the whole play, they made it hard to follow the plot and to identify the characters. Moreover nearly every actor had to play more than one part and as the play was performed in Shakespearian English, it was necessary to read the French supertitles.
However the actors' performances were expressive and made quite an impression. The interpretation of the monologues, when all the other characters stood still while the monologue was presented was particularly remarkable. Lady Macbeth's role was equally delightful, even though it was sometimes difficult to understand her. However she still managed to let the audience feel her ambition and finally her madness.
All in all, this modern adaption of Shakespeare was not bad, but in my opinion, plays should be played like they were intended to be, i.e. with suitable costumes and so on.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Disappointing or good? That is the question.

"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. "[1]

These words are part of one of the most well known quotes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and yet, they did not appear in the performance we went to see at the Royal Theatre of Namur on Tuesday 22nd September. Other surprising things such as the absence of period costumes, confusing settings and the gates of hell are also noteworthy. However there were not only drawbacks in the play. Indeed, there were some extremely interesting aspects worth writing about. Let’s first begin with the more negative points.

As soon as the play begun, we were struck by the fact that there were no actual costumes. Indeed, the male actors on stage were dressed in simple black clothes with a jacket (the king, and later Macbeth, were both wearing a long coat) and ankle boots. The actresses wore a black gown and high-heels. This is not a problem as such , but one would usually expect real costumes in a play like Macbeth. Indeed, the identification of the characters was not that easy and would probably have been easier had they worn period costumes. What is more, the stage was not at all furnished, except for wooden boxes through which light effects showed us where the act was taking place (at the entrance of Macbeth’s castle, next to the celebration in Macbeth’s castle, etc…). The only time when someone was really ‘dressed up’ and that there were more décors was at the gates of hell (which I honestly did not recognize at first). Suddenly, one of those wooden boxes was pushed to the middle of the stage uncovering a woman with red hair who was answering a phone and surrounded by all kinds of modern items (which was totally anachronistic and strange for the play). This box contained more décor and furniture than the whole play together. All of this made it a bit confusing and surprising for I expected a Shakespearian play to be played in period costume, with an entirely furnished stage and not the minimalistic approach we saw. All of the above-mentioned elements made for a disappointing play in my opinion.

Secondly, I have to admit that I was not convinced by the actors. Indeed, sometimes they overdid it and conversely. Take, for example, the moment Macbeth is being killed. In the previous scenes, it only took Macbeth one blow to kill his enemies (or allies since he becomes mad) whilst he was hit at least ten times before finally passing away. I still do not understand why the actors exaggerated,. What is more, I think the distribution of the roles was equally poor. Banquo was taller than Macbeth who is supposed to be “larger than life”. Despite these drawbacks, here follow some of the positive points.

Firstly, the sound and light effects were particularly well done such as when the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth. The actor, wearing black in a dark background (his body was thus invisible), appeared on stage with only his face lit up, which was extremely impressive,.. Another scene is that of the celebration in Macbeth’s castle. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were speaking to each other and light came through the boxes on the left (spectator’s point of view) and the sound of people feasting. This ‘mise en scène’ was beautifully carried out. Another plus for the play were the sound effects. When, at the beginning of the play, the three witches (who were only two) spoke, the male actors whispered, which gave it a very gothic allure. Another sound effect which I very much appreciated (being male) was the sound of the swords coming out of their sheath. That sound was very realistic and gave the impression that the characters had invisible swords (which they, actually, did not have).

Secondly, even though Macbeth’s performance was unconvincing, Lady Macbeth’s, on the opposite, was. She played her part stunningly well, really showing who was the brain in all this diabolical conspiracy. She was obviously one of the best, if not the best, actors on stage. The man who played the ‘blind’ Duncan (was he really blind in Shakespeare’s version? I think not. Or was it only to show the audience that he didn’t know what his ‘friends’ were doing behind his back?) also did a fine job. This is also worth noting.

All in all, I can say that I more or less enjoyed the play even though I did not like some things that were part of it. I really loved the sound and visual effects because they gave us the decors that were actually missing. However, there were some things I did not like, such as the lack of costumes and clear decors (although the visual and sound effects made up for this), the anachronistic red-haired woman at the gates of hell and the of some actors (Macbeth, for example). All of this leaves me undecided whether this play was worthwhile or not, but the least we can say is that it will leave nobody indifferent.

[1] Macbeth. (Act IV, Scene I).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Timeless Shakespeare

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V

So spoke Macbeth, King of Scotland, shortly before he died. That is what the audience who attended the play in the Théâtre Royal de Namur heard. Macbeth has a reputation for being a cursed play. Saying its name in a theatre is allegedly unlucky ; for this reason the play is often titled The Scottish Play and the main characters M and Lady M.

Despite this threat, intrepid directors such as Declan Donnellan do not hesitate to stage new adaptations, and in this case a modern one.

But is Shakespeare really timeless ? Can we modernise his plays ?

As far as Donnellan's Macbeth is concerned, the answer is lukewarm. It is quite true that theatrically speaking the actors in general do a wonderful job and that the set design puts Shakespeare's text forward. However, a certain number of “weaknesses” makes the play difficult to follow, and thus, less pleasant to see. The ambivalent character of this play is that its strength sometimes lies in these weaknesses. For instance, the fact that the actors are all dressed in black and plain clothes makes the identification of each character difficult. But on the other hand, it adds a morbid touch and increases the supernatural atmosphere of the play, the actors moving almost invisibly in the background. Another example is the poorly furnished set: the stage is empty and moving boxes draw the line between the stage and the backstage. Nevertheless, these ones are cleverly used to create other rooms. Besides, one of the funniest scenes takes place in one of these boxes: an anachronistic night porter dressed like a modern prostitute and representing the gates of Hell answers an equally anachronistic cell phone and opens the door mechanically.

Donnellan's adaptations is full of other anachronisms: the twentieth century military costumes, the sunglasses that King Duncan is wearing, Lady Macbeth's shoes, the cheers of Macbeth's friends when this one becomes king (they carry him like football players would carry the scorer) and so on.

Despite these innovations, the play did not have a huge impact on many of the students who were present. Is it because the adaptation was so modern ?

Another Shakespearean play which has recently been adapted in a modern way is Romeo and Juliet. A year ago, the Compagnie de la Sonnette staged a play called Juliette et Romeo (in French, unfortunately). As in Macbeth, they kept most of the original text but, because the action took place in Belgium, parts of the lines were in Dutch. The ancestral hatred between the two families depicted the speech problems between Walloons and Flemish people. Even if the subject was topical, the actors wore period costumes, but these were mixed with modern features (stripes, tattoos, modern shoes, ...). Moreover, colours were important: in opposition to Macbeth, the identity of the characters was easy to guess and the two families could be identified at first sight since the Montague's were in blue and the Capulets in red. Even if the actors played two parts, no confusion was possible because of the costumes and the performance of the actors. As far as the setting was concerned, it consisted of a scaffolding.

Perhaps the success of the play came from the way it mixed comic and farcical elements with tragical ones, a characteristic which was not very present in Macbeth.

Be that as it may, the fact that Juliette et Romeo received an enthusiastic welcome proves that Shakespeare can be adapted in a modern way. Moreover, the transposition Montague-Capulet into Walloon-Flemish shows clearly that this play, like many Shakespearean plays, is still very topical.