For two productions only, the National Theatre has opened a new space, the Square2, just outside the main theatre on the South Bank. It’s an odd space, a large flat open area with audience standing around on three sides on stepped platforms behind crash barriers on raked platforms. Only a low wall separates it from the riverside walk (low enough for the local chavs to peer over and hurl abuse, sadly), giving the venue a wonderfully exposed feel. Only a mile or so from the Globe, the Square2 provides a very different experience of Shakespeare, the atmosphere more akin to a sporting event on the edges of the real world, rather than closed off from it.
The sporting event comparison is perhaps prompted by the use the production itself made of the space, though. After rave reviews at last year’s Edinburgh, Teatr Biuro Podrozy have brought their Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? to London for a handful of performances. Perhaps better thought of as a performance piece inspired by Shakespeare’s play, rather than as a version of it, the Polish company occupied the unusual space in a fascinating and commanding way, utilising motorbikes, flaming firebrands and masked women on stilts to spectacularly fill their sixty minutes.
Very little text remained in this drastically-cut production, and about half of the remaining text was pre-recorded, the actors effectively miming. The production instead concentrated on the visual, using the bare minimum of text to explicate the activity. Only five of the major characters – Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Banquo’s Son (Fleance) and The King (Duncan) – remained, creating a simpler and far more linear narrative that gave the company the flexibility to exptend individual moments with representative imagery that explored the significance of Macbeth’s fall.
Behind the audience, on a high gantry, stood Hecate, a mezzo-soprano who underscored the action throughout with operatic vocals over music that veered from orchestral to electronic (her voice combining with the recorded text to create a unified “soundtrack” for the performers to act to). The play was bookended with her singing of lines from T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday:
Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert.
This “Motto”, suggesting a peace that only death can bring, made explicit the importance that director Pawel Szkotak placed on death throughout the production. Seven poles, six arranged in a circle around the last, stood tall and upright in the centre of the courtyard area, and a masked figure on stilts entered with a burning brand to light their tops, the poles symbolising those who were to die in the course of Macbeth’s ascent (The King, his two Guards, Banquo, the two Murderers and Lady Macbeth). The King here, though, was no saint. Sat on a dais at the far end of the courtyard, messengers roared up to him on motorbikes with reports on enemy munitions, which he received by casually beating them, or in one case even shooting the man in the head. The costumes and bikes were reminiscent of World War II, the King becoming a cruel European dictator. Shortly after, the Defeated King (Cawdor) was brought in, naked and trapped in a wooden cage dragged behind a motorbike. The victorious King clambered on top of the cage to taunt his prisoner and then cut his throat. Altogether, it made for a powerful opening.
The main attraction of the production was the stiltwalking, with the three witches usually appearing on elongated legs that raised them a good eight feet above the ground. These were no ungainly poles, though, but long and graceful spider-legs that the actors could run and even high-kick on. Their movements became terrifying as a result, their strides constantly threatening. The witches reappeared regularly throughout the play, knocking down poles as the deaths mounted up and, increasingly, tortuing Macbeth. The supernatural haunted the living at all turns; here, even Banquo chased an apparition of his son playing with a metal crown and Lady Macbeth threw things at the advancing ghost of Banquo, clutching a bloody head atop stilts. The worst was saved for Macbeth himself. From his first meeting with the Witches, where he repeatedly shot them dead only to have them rise and dance about him, they toyed with him and played upon his bloody nature. In a climactic moment following the murders, the three emerged in a line on stilts, pushing a “Death Machine” (a rolling cylinder with long handle) in which skulls rattled around. They chased Macbeth around the courtyard with the machine, trying to run him over; yet, eventually, Macbeth faced them and stood before the cylinder unafraid, at which the spirits retreated. They returned, in double the numbers, to advance on Macbeth with long logs, which they threw down at the tyrant from on high in his final defeat.
The production’s strengths were in these evocative images, and to list them would take forever: the burning corpse of Macbeth, seated upright as Banquo’s Son stood before it; the burning strings with which the witches encircled Macbeth and Banquo; the naked Lady Macbeth standing in a tin bath, obscured by darkness as she washed away blood; Banquo’s Son riding a toy bike in rings around the increasingly confused Macbeth. Verbal description struggles to capture these images, and I’d strongly recommend looking at these photosfrom their website. Combined, the production gave the impression of being a moving series of snapshots, scenes of nightmarish horror from a linear and uncomplicated descent into evil. Yet there was much that was moving in these images – the child-man Banquo’s Son, playing with toys made out of crowns and sticks, was a beacon of innocence in the literal midst of the horror, stopping and staring up in awe at the marching stiltwalkers who accompanied the King. There was even a bizarre attempt at comedy in a long sequence setting up the stage for a banquet where servants danced with brooms and a groom and maid, clearly having an affair, ate fruit and spat it in each other’s faces for no obvious reason.
The cast, partly owing to the lack of live dialogue, became part of the tableaux, an element in the design rather than fully-fledged performances in their own right. There was plenty of good work though. Scarily, Piotr Kazmierczak’s Macbeth and Jakub Papuga’s Banquo were almost identical in looks, which provided an interesting insight into their characters. They appeared together, firing machine guns from a motorbike and sidecar, and both were seen chasing illusory crowns as if both harboured ambitions. Macbeth’s orders for Banquo’s death immediately after the King’s thus became an exercise in tidying up, killing off a potential competitor.
The programme claimed that the performance was “an attempt to see Shakespeare’s drama as a crime myth”. This isn’t the impression I was left with; istead, it came across as a dark fairy tale, a story of demonic intervention and damnation, of weak humans and destructive actions. In this I felt it lacked a depth of reading, partly because of the reduction of all plot and character elements to their absolute basics. This was made up for by a visceral and haunting experience that made human evils terrifyingly clear. Both brutal and beautiful, this was one of the most original and inventive takes on Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, and no doubt I’ll be writing again on it shortly.