This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Macbeth, Jan Kochanowski Theatre, Opole, Poland, dir. by Maja Kleczewska, 9 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Paul Prescott, University of Warwick
Warning: this review contains spoilers and nudity
Halfway through Maja Kleczewska’s production I was struck by the thought that Poland, home to this Macbeth and to one of the richest and most serious theatre cultures on the planet, is the same country that, in the late nineteenth century, gave the world Esperanto. Esperanto, kiel ĉiu scias / as everyone knows, is a ‘constructed international auxiliary language’, that is a lingua franca devised to allow communication between people with different native tongues.
What has this got to do with last night at the Globe? Well, director Kleczewska is clearly interested in problems of language and self-expression and has even co-devised a show called Babel. But I’m intrigued by the extent to which this production, while performed in Polish, also spoke a kind of theatrical Esperanto, offering an accessible mash-up of very familiar signifiers to an international audience more or less well-equipped to decode and enjoy them.
Look at the production photos here and you will see – as we did last night – many of the classic expressions of the sub-branch of stage Esperanto that we might affectionately call EuroShakespearean. EuroShakespearean productions will tend to include some combination of the following: transvestitism, simulated sex, binge boozing, karaoke*, ghettoblasters, grubby furniture, tracksuits, flip-flops, unexciting underpants, leather jackets, sadism, sunglasses, sexual violence, techno techno techno, narcosis, nudity**, and, for a finale, some more karaoke. (As if one didn’t get enough of all this at home!) Anyway: you get the idea, and if you still don’t watch this.
Demotic, disillusioned, anti-heroic and shop-soiled, this is Shakespeare as many continental Europeans directors have liked him for some time***. Or rather, perhaps this is what the New Europe looks and smells like – the air does not nimbly and sweetly recommend itself unto our gentle senses but rather hangs heavy with vodka, sweat and kitsch. Pop culture is everywhere, as are borrowings from e.g. Lynch, Aldomovar, Tarantino and Lukas Moodysson. (The latter’s impressively repellent A Hole in My Heart (2004), released earlier in the year this Macbeth premiered, might well have been a pungent influence.) At times, the staging aspires to the concentrated montage effects of well-produced, slightly arty mainstream music videos – the director’s Facebook page ‘likes’ Lana Del Ray’s ‘Video Games’ and I suspect she’d also like this – and indeed, theatre and music video marry in this trailer for the show.
And yet, and yet… I’ve been stressing what the production has in common with wider trends in postmodern staging and culture, but this is fatally to ignore the topical and specific force it must have had for the audience when it premiered in 2004 and – who knows? – for many of the people watching last night. Sitting alongside the apparently accessible signifiers listed above are all the points of reference lost on a non-Polish audience or even perhaps lost on a non-2004 + non-Polish audience. As my colleague Tony Howard has just very helpfully described in the comments section over on the Guardian website, this is a production that used Shakespeare’s play to mount a bold and vivid response to some very troubling trends in post-communist Polish society: gangsterism, greed, homophobia, moral and social corruption.
When the production premiered, one reviewer wrote of his fear that ‘the evil would cross the footlights and mess with your head’. Many aspects of last night were indeed impressively mood-altering (which I take it is what we go to the theatre for) and I was deeply impressed by the force of the central performances. The production was at its best – for me – when Judyta Paradzinska and Michal Majnicz were given the run of the stage: the acting was passionate, bold, committed and precise. When Lady M’s inert body was brought to her husband, he cradled her in his arms in a touching moment Shakespeare failed to give us but which has a visceral dramatic pay-off. He then stumbled and danced her body around the stage in a hopeless attempt to reanimate it. (Romeo does the same with Juliet’s corpse at the end of Macmillan’s choreography of Prokofiev’s ballet.) Here, even the regrettable, pseudo-cinematic decision to blast out that ubiquitous theme from Requiem for a Dream could not detract from the raw beauty of the staging.
Macbeth is a play that tends to work its magic when produced with a sustained, even hallucinogenic intensity. But last night, with the almost constant presence of the drag queens, the somewhat distracting subplots introduced to justify their presence, and the regular and very self-conscious tonal shifts, it was as if the Porter were coming on every few minutes. Tension was repeatedly, perhaps systematically defused. Another reviewer of the original production wrote approvingly that it was ‘like watching the best action film’ but that kind of experience was impossible in this revival: any would-be cinematic production designed for the controlled conditions of an end-on, indoor theatre and then transplanted to this venue is liable to be upstaged, downstaged and off-staged, as it were, by the volatile dynamics of the Globe.
Every approach to staging Shakespeare – whether conservative, ‘authentic’, scenic, postmodern – brings the possibility of great, bad and indifferent productions. No British director with any ambition to work the Globe-RSC-National axis would allow or push themselves to make this type of theatre on a regular basis (although Rupert Goold, of course, flirts with e.g. karaoke and pop culture) and it cannot be overstressed that it’s particularly great to see it at the Globe. This is the kind of Shakespeare production that offends the Daily Mail and for that reason alone it should be celebrated. (Sam Wanamaker, for one, would have approved.) I’m just not sure, having tried to sketch some of the contexts of the production, quite how good it is / was. Or – to change my opening metaphor from language to money – if this is €uroShakespeare, legal tender across most of the continent, especially on the festival circuit, how do we decide its value in any one location? And was its heyday in the 1990s or 2000s? And is this fledgling analogy mortally wounded by the fact that Poland has its own currency?!
I’m troubled by lots of other questions. What was the meaning of having that gay anthem, Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, punctuating the action, most meaningfully overscoring the very abrupt mass slaughter of Macbeth at the end? Was the moral – compounded by the decision to make the Macduff children two little girls – that this was a culture that annihilated women, but that men and the bonds between them (whether of hatred or love) would indeed survive? And does an audience really need to see Lady Macduff being raped to know how wicked are the ways of men and where its moral sympathies lie?
I’m out of time. Over to you.
* I’d be intrigued to know the first occasion on which a karaoke number was inserted into a Shakespearean production and am offering a small mystery prize (batteries not included) to the reader who can come up with the earliest date.
**On the nudity scale, this Macbeth managed a disappointing 3 out of 10 – this should be compared with the impressive 8 secured by the cast of Two Roses for Richard III in Stratford who dispelled any anxiety on this score by stripping off, getting dressed, then stripping off again about seventeen times in the first five minutes of that show.
*** If you seek proof that the same staging tropes and aesthetics have cropped up again and again over the last twenty years, and not simply in Shakespeare productions, check out the karaoke motif in this German Hamlet of 2001 or look at the photo used in yesterday’s Guardian to illustrate UK playwright Simon Stephens’ paean to German directing: everything you see – the discarded footwear, the animal heads, the Adidas tracksuit, the shades – is textbook.
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Want to know what other audience members thought of the production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:
Listen below to an interview with two of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
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