Modernizing Macbeth

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • April 16, 2015

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Thunder rumbles and cracks through the dimly lit Cabaret in the Little Building. The wind howls, and a door slams shut. Voices pierce through the space, eerie and detached, surrounding the audience as they look upon a sparse stage—their words are modulated, poking through bursts of static as if they’re coming from an old transceiver. 

Where shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

So began Emerson Shakespeare Society’s version of Macbeth, the Bard’s famous tragedy of deceit, murder, and ambition. It chronicles the story of Scottish general Macbeth, who after hearing a prophecy from three witches—in this case, the spooky voices from the radio—assassinates those above him so that he can take the throne as King of Scotland. But ultimately, Macbeth himself is killed in a tragic death.

“EmShakes,” as it’s colloquially known by its members, is the only student theater group on campus devoted to classic works, often but not always focusing on Shakespeare himself. The group, officially recognized by the Student Government Association, funds plays proposed by its members.

This particular depiction of Macbeth, performed to audiences of around 60 last Saturday and Sunday, was a modern take on the classic play. The show took place “in the round”—that is, with the audience surrounding the stage on all four sides, rather than facing it from only one angle. The set itself was minimal: a squat platform of unvarnished wood in the center and three sets of shutter blinds hanging from the ceiling around the edges of the space. The characters looked like spies or thieves, dressed in thick black turtlenecks, dress shoes, and slacks, and thin scarves of maroon, navy, and forest green. King Duncan, the victim of a murder plot by Macbeth, wore rimless, rounded sunglasses, like Morpheus in The Matrix

“[The characters] didn’t touch, they didn’t interact directly, things like gloves would help to emphasize that,” said junior Sam Terry, the director. “They’d put on more clothes to hide their figure, and that would raise their status; the more clothes they had on, the more protected they were.”

Terry, a junior performing arts major, said he used philosopher Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as a theoretical context for the play. He said that he set the play in the round to emulate the “panopticon,” a hypothetical prison in which a circular structure surrounds a viewing tower holding a single watchman—power lies with those who can see everything but are never seen.

“[There’s surveillance] among the actors, among the characters, among the audience viewing the actors, and then the actors viewing the audience,” said Terry. “We had the lights up a little bit on a lot of the audience members.”

He said that he stripped the play from about its typical three hours down to an hour and 45 minutes without losing any essential plot points. He shortened the play to fully realize the metaphor of the panopticon—if an audience member got tired or bored and voluntarily left in the middle of the show, they would no longer be “imprisoned.”

Sophomore performing arts major Mitchell Buckley, the actor who portrayed the title role, said that Macbeth was his first time performing in the round.

“One of the benefits of doing Shakespeare in the round is that so much of it is written to be spoken directly to the audience anyway. It was easy to include the entire audience through Macbeth's soliloquies,” Buckley wrote in a message to the Beacon. 

The space also created a frantic and kinetic show, with actors delivering soliloquies while moving around and over the central platform. 

“I wanted the play to move, to chase,” said Terry. “I think [performing in] the round is exciting. I think it forces the actors to move; it’s engaging and keeps the pace moving. And luckily, we cast really physical actors.”

One notable example of the show’s corporeal energy is the possession scene. Scared and guilt-ridden, Macbeth contacts the witches, who summon clairvoyant apparitions. Macbeth tears off his clothing and moves about, jittery and jolting, jabbing his limbs out into the space, filled with intense distress.

“I really think that we feel and express with our whole bodies,” Buckley wrote, “and we set this production of Macbeth in a world where people weren't allowed to express themselves physically—which is something that really lent itself to the way I moved as the play went on.” 

Productions of Macbeth are also infamous for their historical record of injuries and mishaps, caused, as legend goes, by a curse created by real witches centuries ago. Theatrical superstition requires that actors avoid directly saying the name of the show before a performance; instead, they ought to refer to it as “The Scottish Play.”

EmShake’s Macbeth had its own share of behind-the-scenes obstacles; the cast had only 11 hours to actually practice in the Cabaret before the public preview Friday night, and on Sunday night, actor Paul McGlew, a senior performing arts major, unexpectedly couldn’t perform. The role of Banquo, Macbeth’s ally-turned-nemesis, was filled in by none other than Terry. 

“[Paul was] such a joy to work with, and it broke my heart that he wasn’t going to be there that performance,” said Terry. “I was sad about it; honestly, I was nervous, but I was happy to fill in, and I was honored that the cast was so receptive to it.” 

Terry said that theater is difficult, and that emergency situations will inevitably come up. 

“You just have to adjust and take them with grace,” said Terry. “If this was our ‘Scottish Play’ curse, I couldn’t have been happier with the way the team adjusted to it.”