Michael Thalheimer’s 2018 production of Macbeth, as preserved in the Berliner Ensemble’s stream for its ‘BE At home’ programme during the Covid-19 lockdown, is immersed in corporeality. This is not a production in which bodies are aestheticised, but one in which they excrete, expel, merge and bloat. Macbeth (Sascha Nathan) describes himself as Duncan’s butcher, and that’s how he presents himself: a big man, ruddy (even when not covered in blood) and fleshy, his stomach exposed to the elements. He’s sweaty and lumbering, literally greasy as his torso takes on the accumulated fluids of the performance, and workmanlike in his handling of corpses. This is Macbeth as butcher *rather than* soldier, and a butcher who is fed up of providing the choice cuts for others to enjoy.
As someone who traffics in bodies, it’s therefore appropriate that he’s surrounded by them. The witches are hermaphroditic, mostly naked and covered in blood from the start. The mesmerising first witch (Kathrin Wehlisch) dominates the stage, her angular limbs and eerie leer marking her otherness. When she appears before Macbeth and Banquo’s arrival she is rasping ‘Mac … beth …’ like a zombie, teetering downstage from the thick mist that envelops the stage with her arms outstretched, before eating what looks like a heart. The emphasis placed by the production on her body combines violence and sex; in the production’s opening image, she cups the crotch of King Duncan (Ingo Hülsmann), establishing a link between bodily functions, pleasure, violence and the driving forces of the play. It’s a connection that the production reinforces continually throughout, its six actors experiencing the play viscerally and corporeally.
The thick fog that covers the stage throughout allows for striking and disconcerting effects, with characters often audible long before they emerge from the mist. The manic laughter that reverberates throughout the production – both from the witches and from Macbeth himself – becomes a haunting interruption that is juxtaposed against the sonorous rumble that provides an ominous underscore throughout. Ghost and witches brush shoulders with mortals in a way that blurs the lines between dead, undead and the living, and those who are murdered refuse to die. Banquo (Tilo Nest) is perhaps the most overt example of this – at first he has his cock hacked off by the three murderers who pin him down and cackle as they castrate him, before leaving him slumped on the floor. Then they return and strip him of his clothes; only on a third return do they finish him. Earlier, when Macbeth first returns home to Lady Macbeth, their embrace is interrupted by ghastly off-stage screams – ‘a peasant who has not paid land duty’ Macbeth tells her, and Lady Macbeth asks that he be brought in so that she can accustom her eyes to the sight of blood. The twitching body that lies at their feet for the remainder of the scene is clearly not dead, but treated by them as if already beneath their notice.
There are few causes for hope in this world. Duncan, as implied in the witch cupping him and later kissing him and throwing him to the ground, is himself in thrall to power and steeped in blood – as a messenger (Niklas Kohrt) cackles behind him, Duncan receives the head of the Thane of Cawdor, spit on it and throws it carelessly behind him. Banquo is cynical; he sees immediately through Macbeth following the prophecy of the witches, asking him ‘Aren’t you hungry for King Duncan’s crown, Thane?’ before walking off in disgust. The Witch has Banquo in her sights too, licking his face before he meets Macbeth again ahead of Duncan’s murder. After the Macbeths have been crowned, Banquo is topless, laughing and fearful, as the Macbeths stand on either side of him, stroking him. He’s the closest thing to a ‘good’ person in this world, but easily defeated. Later, his ghost mounts Macbeth during the banquet scene and even takes his crown off to place on his own head, but Macbeth casts him down and out.
There is no moral complexity to the Macbeths of this production – they’re out for blood. Their first reunion is brutally sexual, Macbeth entering from behind and grabbing her hard by the breasts and then reaching a hand down to grab her crotch, while she caresses his head. Lady Macbeth’s (Constanze Becker) ‘unsex me here’ sees her reaching out to shafts of light that emerge from directly above and to the side, momentarily capturing her in a crucifix of light, before she curls her claw-like hands inwards towards her body and scrapes at it. The sexual excitement of their meeting fuels her exhortations to Macbeth to complete what he has started. Later, however, she is abandoned. Ahead of the banquet, she stands upstage wearing a new white dress, though her face remains bloodied from her earlier acts. Macbeth stands downstage looking away from her – the two very rarely look directly at one another. He muses on man’s place in the world: ‘Men made the world, and only men may break it’. Quietly, Lady Macbeth slips the straps of her dress off her shoulders and bares her breasts to him, but he tells her ‘my bride is Scotland’ and walks past her, telling her to cover up as ‘power is cold’.
Nathan’s performance is ugly and uncompromising. Much of his work is done downstage, leaning forward, almost gasping for breath as he works through paranoia and anxiety and exultation in power. When he is crowned, he takes it with screams of hysterical laughter. He ruminates constantly on the detail of blood and slaughter, the fascination of the butcher with viscera and remnants. He laughs maniacally after the witches gather around him to deliver the impossible prophecies, one straddling him, but immediately descends into claustrophobic paranoia, hunching up and embracing himself with his arms as he feels the walls close around him. He’s a trapped animal, and so bound up in blood that there is no possible other way out.
The witches, of course, are always steering things – the first witch in particular is a regular presence, placing bloodied hands on the faces and arms and shoulders of the cast as they prepare to do dark deeds. She also reappears as the Porter: one-footed, bare-breasted and with a prosthetic cock dangling from her trousers, she laughs hysterically at reports of mutilations (‘He sliced her nipples off with a sword!’), and it is left to Macduff (Hülsmann again) to throttle her and dismiss her by throwing her to the ground. Macduff is a solid presence throughout (and it’s a fascinating doubling of Macduff and Duncan that I’ve never seen before, yet makes fine sense as the actor ‘discovers’ his own body and later revenges his own assassination). Following the discovery of Duncan’s body, all of the cast adopt a fixed gestus – Macduff stands wide-legged and upright; Macbeth slumped with hands pointed at the ground; Lady Macbeth tilted, her arm up near her head in shock. These fixed positions see the human characters fully embodying for a moment the positions that the witches have placed them in, reminding the audience of their fixed roles in an oft-told story.
The witch returns yet again as Seyton, laughing as she blurs back into the witch when hearing about the imminent arrival of Birnam Wood, and as Malcolm. Malcolm is a deliberately vulnerable figure – so softly spoken that he can barely be heard, and with a shock of black hair and whitened face that emphasises his youth and fear, especially as he walks across the stage against the direction of the revolve while the disembodied laughter of the newly crowned Macbeth haunts him. But even this role bleeds into the Witch’s others in the final scene. Macduff throttles Macbeth from behind, taking his crown from him as he slumps to the ground, and gives the crown to Malcolm. But as the crown lands on Malcolm’s head the actor, backlit by green light, opens her mouth to gush blood and gives a wide-eyed manic smile as Malcolm raises his arms to the sky before a blackout.