Macbeth @ Stadsschouwburg Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 2016Tragedy

  • Paul Franssen

Macbeth, directed by Lucas de Man. Het Zuidelijk Toneel. Stadsschouwburg Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 6 May 2016

Review by Paul Franssen, Utrecht University


Mark Kraan and Saskia Temmink as the Macbeths. Photo Phile Deprez

The Macbeth of this production is clearly our contemporary. He inhabits a world of video conferencing and talk shows at home, of airstrikes and roadside explosive devices at the battle front. Yet, this free adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of ambition was not merely a transposition of a universal story to the present. Director Lucas de Man holds that the original meaning of a 400-year-old play cannot be retrieved, so that he is entitled to adapt it at will to explore the dilemmas of the modern world. Ambition obviously still exists; yet that hardly played a role here. Other themes, such as the justification of war and constructions of gender, were far more important; and in these respects, the world has changed considerably since 1606.

Most important, however, was the addition of Macbeth’s son, a boy in his early teens who sat playing front stage for most of the performance, building a futuristic airplane out of blood-red lego-blocks. Shakespeare’s Macbeth famously “has no children”, or so Macduff tells us (4.3.217), although Lady Macbeth does say that she has “given suck” (1.7.54). Whether this was an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, or whether the Macbeths are a couple who have lost a child and therefore look for different ways to fulfil their ambitions, is a much-debated question in critical history, and ultimately as unanswerable as the number of Lady Macbeth’s children. Still, it is this issue, with a significant twist, that De Man and his scriptwriter Jamal Ouariachi raised in this performance.

The main twist lies in the fact that the loss of their son does not make the Macbeths ambitious, but helpless. The boy playing front-stage is a ghostly presence, the embodied memory of their son; in reality, he had grown up to be killed in the war against the rebels, by a roadside explosive. Dutch audiences would have instantly recognised the real-life origin of this motif: the commander of the Dutch armed forces, General Peter van Uhm, lost his son under similar circumstances in Afghanistan in 2008. There all resemblance ends, however: for Macbeth and his wife react to their loss in antithetical ways that turn out to be catastrophic. Whereas Lady Macbeth wishes to talk with her husband about their shared grief, and about his traumatic experiences during the war in general, he is unwilling or unable to do so. He suffers from sudden memory flashes, indicated by loud noises and video footage of human bodies in pain, suggesting post-traumatic stress disorder.

With his bald head and muscular body, Mark Kraan (Macbeth) seemed to embody masculinity, whereas Saskia Temmink was an elegant, strong, yet loving Lady Macbeth. His reluctance to talk also appears to be grounded in his ideal of masculinity: generals do not cry, he says, and he blames himself for failing to protect his child, a father’s chief duty in life. His reaction to this failure is blind animal aggression: it emerges that during the war, Macbeth had ordered a ruthless airstrike in reprisal for his son’s death, killing innocent civilians. After his return home, his anger is directed at King Duncan, who had first neglected the armed forces and relied on an air war, then, when things got out of hand, drafted an army of conscripts to fight a ground war with insufficient means. This, in Macbeth’s view, is what killed his son.

If Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth appeals to her husband’s masculinity to persuade him to murder Duncan, her modern equivalent, a career woman in her own right, finds his excessive masculinity an obstacle to their marriage; and when he once again refuses to talk to her and blames Duncan for everything, she suggests that he should kill the king. Macbeth, however, is unable to murder with his own hands: in a modern war, violence comes at the push of a button, with surgical airstrikes that look as abstract as the model airplanes he used to build with his son. Once again inverting Shakespeare’s plot, Lady Macbeth exits and returns with her hands red with blood: she has done the deed, hoping to liberate her husband from his demons and to share the horrors he has witnessed. All in vain, for Macbeth remains locked inside himself, and when his aggression has run out of control and Malcolm has started his invasion, it is his wife herself who shoots him.

If this suggests that the performance was a psychological study of a traumatized couple, that is only half the truth; for unbeknownst to Macbeth, his aggression was in fact manipulated by three disembodied voices, one of them female, for their political ends. These voices, the equivalents of the witches, represented powers like the military-industrial complex, or multinational business conglomerates, that manipulated politics. Early on, the voices revealed that Duncan had become a political liability, because of his willingness to conclude peace and make concessions to the rebels, which they saw as threatening their interests. They considered ways of replacing the king by someone more malleable. This was the context for their temptation of Macbeth. At the end, when Malcolm had assumed power, he, too, spoke with these voices, thanking them for their advice and promising to work with them in future.

This cynical ending, suggesting that there was no place for idealism, undercut Malcolm’s promise earlier in the production of a modern, peace-loving reign when, in due time, he should succeed his father. War was  outdated, he told Macbeth and Banquo, who were visibly irritated by this milksop’s arrogant self-assurance. This was another theme that provided a link to the modern world, framed in a TV talk show hosted by a visibly pregnant woman, who asked critical questions: was war a deplorable necessity, as Macbeth argued? Or even a means to glue the nation together, as Banquo believed? And what of moral issues and human rights in the context of warfare? Banquo glibly suggested that the rebels were utter barbarians, and then used that claim to excuse infringements of human rights on their own side. Macbeth, by contrast, seemed a responsible general, who cared for his soldiers like a father; yet, it gradually emerged, this was precisely what had led him to exterminate the rebel village after his son’s death.

Politics, in this production, was a dirty game of lies and window dressing: no one more adept at this than old Macduff, a courtier who resembled Polonius more than Shakespeare’s Macduff. Apart from the case of General van Uhm, the other acknowledged source of inspiration for this production was House of Cards, with its very similar view of the snake pit of power politics. As the original of that series, the nineties British TV-production, overtly flaunted its Shakespearean references to Macbeth and Richard III, that meant that the circle had been closed. Yet in one respect this theatre production deviated from that model: these Macbeths were not the power-hungry agents of political intrigue; rather, in their trauma, they became both victims and tools of forces beyond their control.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016).