Finding the turbulent polyphony of Macbeth
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most-produced plays, which makes it one of the best-known and most-produced plays in the English language. Certain key images and phrases permeate our consciousness as the play has been adapted and parodied in almost every manner and style imaginable. In the 1960s, in Barbara Garson’s Macbird, it became an expression of distrust for government following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In the South African uMabatha it was a vehicle to portray the fall of the Zulu Empire. In addition to versions of the play itself, films have turned it into a samurai tragedy (Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood), gangster power struggles in Brooklyn and Melbourne, Australia, and a fight to control a fast food outlet in rural Pennsylvania. Stage productions in the past year have used the plot to portray power struggles in a Dutch chimpanzee enclosure and a Botswanan baboon troop. It has been parodied on The Simpsons and turned into a one-man show using The Simpsons’ characters’ voices for Shakespeare’s thanes. And this only scratches the surface.
As a result of this, almost all of us have an ingrained familiarity with what feel like the “bullet-points” of the play, making it difficult for us to hear the play’s actual lines and images amid all the pop culture clutter. Most of us are remarkably more sure of the play’s world than its characters seem to be: something almost all close readers have noted is the turbulence and uncertainty of the play. Questions abound, starting with the first words of the play. Information is received as hearsay much more often than fact, and all “facts” seem to have doubled, or doubly redoubled, meanings. The Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight remarked on the “continual surprise” within the play. Time, that most human of concepts, resounds through the play, complicated by a velocity that gives a sense of sleepless delirium. Large stretches of the play unfold in almost real time, then suddenly jump unclear intervals – days, weeks, or much longer?
Marvin Rosenberg, in The Masks of Macbeth, his encyclopedic study of the play’s international life up to the mid-1970s, stresses the play’s “polyphony,” “the sense of the many notes in the character designs, and their dynamic, changing patterns.” Almost anything that can be asserted as an attitude of the play can be met with a counter-assertion within the play’s text. Rosenberg urges the attempt to “recapture the bewilderment and mystery of the unfolding oracular promises” made in the play.
This production has tried to emphasize that polyphony, rather than shoehorning the play into a specific rigid interpretation. The costume design aims to capture an unspecified “Western” feeling of the late 20th century, because Blanka Zizka felt the play’s sensibility of uncertainness is shared so much with that period from which we may (or may not) be emerging.
In other aspects of this production, attention has, almost organically, gone in the direction of exploration without pre-determined interpretation. Rosenberg’s polyphony dovetails very nicely into the approach Cicely Berry and Andrew Wade take toward exploring Shakespeare’s language, which in turn dovetails surprisingly well with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a major influence in the design of the abstract stage space. Rosenberg says “A drama as polyphonic as Macbeth cannot be described from the hindsight of what happened. It must be re-experienced in terms of what happens from moment-to-moment, in terms of its process. Macbeth is about all that goes on in it.” Similarly, the voice guru Cicely Berry urges actors to avoid “the tendency to swamp the language with emotion without letting the thought to impact or, more crucially, to be surprised by it.” And Bachelard, seeing space as a poetic act, speaks of poetic acts as a “doublet of resonances and repercussions,” where the “resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence.”
But for all the play’s polyphony, one word that echoes through Macbeth is “fear.” It pervades the play. The word appears more often in Macbeth than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays and echoed in word and deed: as Andrew Wade noted in the voice workshop and on his interview for Open Stages, the shape of the play’s language itself is filled with turbulence and uncertainty.
While fleeing the Nazis, Walter Benjamin wrote “there is no document of civilization that is not, at the same time, a document of barbarism.” Perhaps few literary works epitomize this adage as well as Macbeth. How each character responds to fear and uncertainty in large degree determines their capacity for good or evil. As literary critic Terry Eagleton has recently noted, “Even though evil transcends everyday social conditioning, this does not mean that it is necessarily supernatural, or that it lacks all human causality. Many things - art and language, for example - are more than just a reflex of their social circumstances, but this is not to say that they drop from the skies.” As Marvin Rosenberg suggests, Macbeth may ask an audience to “risk to its limits the stance that nothing human is alien to us.”
“Every human generation has its own illusions with regard to civilization: some believe that they are taking part in its upsurge, others that they are witnesses to its extinction. It always both flames and smolders and is extinguished, according to the place and angle of view.” Ivo Andric, Nobel Prize winner, 1961.