Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

Hello everybody! We are halfway through the run of our critically acclaimed Macbeth, and you know what that means! I am finally free to discuss some of the staging decisions that we made, instead of focusing on tangential aspects of the show’s history or our concept for it. Instead of discussing the play Macbeth, I can discuss our production of Macbeth. Which is very exciting, because I’ve wanted to discuss this topic since I walked into the theatre for tech rehearsal and saw the stage for the first time.

This show actually has one of our more traditional stagings. I think it is the closest we’ve ever gotten to actually using even the suggestion of a proscenium [don’t tell Hannah I said that or she’ll fly back here and re-stage it -KH]. All we did is turn the theatre around. And I can imagine, if this is your first experience in the space at CHAW, you might not notice that anything is different. But if you’re familiar with that theatre, and you walked in and saw the room rotated 180 degrees, and then took a seat on the stage, where you normally watch the action happen, and watched the actors moving up and down on the risers that you normally sit on…its a profoundly disorienting sensation. It isn’t disorienting in the ‘takes you out of the world of the play’ way, our space is still recognizable as a stage. Only its backwards, and that feels…wrong.

I don’t mean to imply that the staging makes the audience complicit in the action, or suggest that in fact THEY are the ones who are being watched. There is certainly space in Macbeth to explore both of those ideas; any show that features violence inherently makes the argument that its watching audience at least passively approves of the violence, and the Weird Sisters’ nebulous existence in the universe of the show (along with, metatextually, its built-in audience of ghosts) give the enterprising Panopticon enthusiast enough ammunition to do themselves some serious harm. But our show doesn’t bear out either of those interpretations. We are much more interested in the sense of unfamiliarity that the change engenders, with the idea of losing control of your surroundings and losing touch with reality.

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Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

On a less meta-theatrical, more staging level, our establishment of an actual set, with a chair and empty picture frames on the wall and all that, is ripe with opportunities for disorientation. It is easy to understand how the stage can be Duncan’s (later Macbeth’s) throne room and the Macbeths’ sitting room. It’s not that far of a stretch to make it the Macduff estate and Macbeth’s banquet hall, as well. But when the stage is supposed to be the witches’ heath, or England, or Birnam Wood, it becomes a little more…incongruous. Certainly on one level the central presence of the throne makes a straightforward point about the dominating power the kingship holds over the play as a whole. But on a less metaphorical level, the throne doesn’t belong there. The picture frames don’t belong there. It creates a cognitive dissonance, a sense of confusion about where we really are. A simple blackbox would be less confusing, because the audience would be forced to imagine ALL of the set pieces and environs. But instead, this design forces the audience to un-see portions of the set, to ignore what their eyes are telling them is right there.

Messing with the playing space is only one of the ways we played with a sense of discomfort, disorientation, and confusion in this show. Much has been made of our sound design for this performance, and all of it deserved. Sound is a tempting and powerful but notoriously difficult beast to harness for this sort of disorienting performance [I speak from 4 long years of college soundboard operating experience -KH]. Many companies, ourselves often included, will shy away from a concept so reliant on pre-recorded sound, eschewing it as both high-risk and insufficiently…earthy, DIY, visceral, actor-generated, however you prefer to conceive that in your mind. But sometimes, like for this show, the risk is worth the reward, because it allows you to blur the line between diegetic and nondiegetic sound. If a character brings a drum on stage and bangs it, everyone else on stage can and must hear it. But when the sound of a drum just…starts…playing, it is open for interpretation who, if anyone, can hear. And if a character can hear something the audience can hear, but the rest of the cast can’t, what else are they aware of? Can they see the audience too? The miracle of pre-recorded sound also opens the door for all manner of shenanigans about who is speaking, and where the sounds are coming from. When Macbeth hears his wife’s voice on the wind, or his own, whispering to him about a title he has not yet earned, he is understandably unsettled. When we in the audience see a character in front of us, and then hear their voice coming from behind us, we are likewise discomfited.

But let’s set aside the technical aspects of the show for a second and examine how the text and action also push and disorient us. This show intentionally tells us very little about the passage of time. We have no idea how long Macbeth reigned. In the source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth had a reasonably prosperous 10-year reign before being overthrown, but in the play we are given no clues how much time passes. We know that the assassination happens a few days after the prophecy, and we are given to understand that Macbeth’s coronation takes place shortly thereafter, but nothing after that. This can be seen as an issue with the text, and is often a problem in other productions; Macbeth has a reputation for dragging in the second half, as it wades through interminable meandering paranoia with no clear sense of time. Macbeth could have reigned for years, and it certainly feels like it sometimes. But when you cut a show down to 90 minutes that meandering suddenly picks up a breakneck pace. You’re still lost, but it feels much more frantic. Instead of losing momentum in the wake of his ascendency, our Macbeth gains it, hardly taking his seat on the throne before he begins to worry about the threat allegedly posed by Banquo, and then can barely turn around but he runs to the forest to learn new things to fear from the witches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the doom at the end of his prophecy. It feels like the entire show happens in a bare handful of days. Instead of the lack of time sense dragging the play down, our production leans into it and allows it to mean that almost no time has passed. Like running headlong down a hill with no way to stop and no idea what’s at the bottom, Macbeth hurdles through the second half of the play, having unwittingly surrendered control of himself to his ambition. And the audience finds themselves dragged with him, trying to catch up or at least catch a breath as the play rushes to the end, only to SLAM into “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, when it drops back to a well-deserved crawl for its final scenes, a final moment of emotional clarify for Macbeth but a tremendously disorienting snap of pacing whiplash for the audience.

All of these things, the sound and the set and the timing, all serve to disorient the audience and keep them on their toes. Some might say that trying to confound and discomfit the audience is a bad thing, but Brecht and I would argue otherwise. We aren’t quite going for a Brechtian level of alienation in this production but we’re certainly in the same ballpark. But aside from arguments of theatre as a tool of class pedagogy, this is a play full of magic, ghosts, witches, and unintended consequences. It should be difficult and unnerving, and it should keep you off balance. Macbeth’s actions have disrupted nature itself; the night of Duncan’s murder the world is shaken with wind, thunder, and lightning, and his horses EAT each other. Macbeth’s sin has thrown very world off balance, as the creators of Macbeth’s world on the stage it is our responsibility to mirror that imbalance however possible. If you think it sounds fun to be disoriented and confused by the staging of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, why don’t you come see it? We’ve got a show TONIGHT, and more shows until March 30th! I hope to see you there!