Macbeth @ Esplanade Studios, Singapore, 2016Tragedy

  • Kevin Riordan

Macbeth @ Esplanade Studios, Singapore, 2016

Reviewed by Kevin Riordan

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The banquet scene closes with one of the most striking images in Full Show Lane Studio’s Macbeth. Banquo’s ghost, in partial drag, pushes Macbeth in a wheelchair, almost caringly. The chair has become a moving throne that bears the regent’s now-exhausted body. As they wheel around the water-soaked stage, Lady Macbeth lies across her husband’s lap, her bloodied hands outstretched to keep clean his shirt. The couple awkwardly holds this mobile embrace, spun around by a ghost in a blond wig. This moment offers that visual density that might carry a show into intermission, but in this lean adaptation the play goes straight on. Still, the scene’s aftermath leaves a problem to solve on this bare black-box set: The banquet had been a raucous picnic that spun out of control, and now the floor is strewn with picnic gear, spent plastic bottles, and sprawling puddles. And this Macbeth will pivot on this inter-scene; cleaning the stage ultimately will transform this piece from one kind of adaptation into another.

In this transition out of Act 3, Scene 4, the ensemble emerges in near-darkness to dry the floor with squeegees and towels. A woman who has been sitting by the stage-left sound and light boards walks slowly into a downstage spotlight with a microphone and a book. She is dressed elegantly in black, and she resembles both a stylish stagehand and the single witch from the early scenes. Later, this actor will more clearly assume the role of Hecate, and she will also kill Macbeth. But for now, as the stage is cleared, she reads from an oversize, old-fashioned book, bearing the play’s name. The lines she reads in English—most of the show is performed in Mandarin—include some of the witches’ lines, but also other echoes and repetitions. Some of the sections missing from Lady Macbeth’s early speeches return in this strange composite text which might be the performance’s source. When the book appears on stage, the play’s scripted course starts to unravel, to be read and rewritten.

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This show was conceived in Japan (in collaboration with Tadashi Suzuki) before coming to Singapore with a Chinese, Taiwanese, and Russian cast. With this itinerary, Director Huang Ying’s production inevitably invites associations with an “Asian” or a “Global” Shakespeare, but he prefers to shake loose those framings. This Macbeth is not so much an adaptation of the play to a new cultural or artistic context as much as a critical and playful staging of adaptation itself. While the show’s promotional materials in Singapore still billed it as “a satire infused with Eastern aesthetics” with “a delightful oriental sense of humor,” Huang resists that typecasting. In his own description, he says the piece is constructed with “a childlike sense of wonder that is not biased, has no preconception, and that is filled with endless possibilities.” The show is compelling in part because it negotiates this open spirit during the show itself, seeming even to startle its own unfolding. The result is a bold and charming adaptation that seems to revel in just how imprecise the word “adaptation” can be.

In the play’s first half, Huang establishes a stripped-down and unexpectedly slapstick aesthetic for Macbeth. He steers clear of the play’s customary pomp and gravitas. Physical, brash, and tongue-in-cheek, the ensemble blazes through the play’s early scenes which are often inhibited by all the crowns, robes, and thrones that garnish the action. The costumes here are mismatched, ill-fitting, and loud, and the physical work lies somewhere between clowning and bona fide acrobatics. Against the expectations of Shakespearean tragedy, Huang’s approach feels fresh and a little dangerous, but he shapes the dynamics to find grace and tenderness in the quieter moments and in those a more modern tragic quality. After a frenetic start and Duncan’s murder, for example, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth try to sleep on floral print sheets but cannot. Their extended tossing and turning suggests the simpler kind of tragedy that Maurice Maeterlinck hailed as quintessentially modern. For Maeterlinck, in the twentieth century (and beyond), an old man motionless in an armchair is far more tragic than all the inherited fake blood and tears, and Huang’s Macbeth concurs in isolating a kind of simpler pathos.

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The soundtrack and the props for this contemporary tragic mode similarly are transformed from the banal to the profound in this ensemble’s hands. Throughout the show “Stand by Me” is performed five or six times, always differently. At first it is Lady Macbeth’s karaoke song. Much later it is a noise-guitar dirge for Macbeth played by the actor who once was Duncan. Riffing on the old Marx adage, the pop song repeats first as tragedy, then as farce, and then again as both, and again as something else. The violence in which the play traffics is treated in this same light-and-heavy fashion. The men wield plastic scimitars and battle-axes, whose edges are adorned with tacky red feathers. When they’re swung and spun, the feathered blades trace elegant and bloody halos through the air. Huang routinely makes the audience laugh and then bluntly remember the cruelty that premises the spectacle. What seems stylized to the point of silliness suddenly hits again: Macbeth appears in a spotlight, blood running from his eyes; or later, when Hecate steps on stage to shoot him.

Done in this style, the play’s first half is provocative and satisfying. It is a more modest genus of adaptation, the kind that eliminates languorous speeches and extraneous scenes, that modernizes, that plays for laughs, and that disregards the script to pursue other performance values. The choices for the second half of the show, after the banquet, are more extreme: They trouble the performance’s very relation to its ostensible source, making the audience ask whether this is okay, whether this makes sense, and whether this is still Shakespeare. And the charm and sophistication of Huang’s Macbeth is that he seamlessly blends and bleeds the two kinds of adaptation into each other, without the luxury of an interval, shifting the audience’s horizons of expectation as the show is underway, careening towards the closing gunshots.

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After the inter-scene, Hecate goes to England to plant the book from which she read into Malcolm’s hands. Malcolm and Macduff receive this foreign-language book while in exile. It is a script in which they find their own names—or that they believe they are writing—and so it is with more confidence than usual that they return to avenge Macbeth. But despite the print prophecy they carry, their efforts do not go to plan; Huang’s adaptation distrusts the writing, the apparent source material, in its midst. In the fight sequence that follows Macduff’s “I have no words: / My voice is in my sword,” something unexpected happens, wordlessly. While a certain back-and-forth in this duel always provides for dramatic interest, Macduff clearly is overmatched by even the beleaguered Macbeth. Macbeth is on the verge of killing him, with a plastic scimitar.

Here Hecate and the single Witch enter and shoot Macbeth with pistols. Their aesthetic is not playful. Outsiders in terms of language and appearance, these characters return the show to either its foregone conclusion or to a new one; perhaps it is a bit of both. Their motives are opaque and outside of the play’s world: Are they policing the original, the adaptation, or the modern? While the witches’ influence is typically discerned through Macbeth’s reading of their cryptic incantations, here these characters assume roles in speech, print, and action. Huang’s adaptation places the play’s book on stage and then ultimately interferes with its onstage effects, its power over this multilingual, modern event. In this way, the production doubly distrusts the play’s language and yet turns that distrust into its own delightful and murderous story. As “Stand By Me” plays a final time, Huang’s Macbeth offers nothing like the fitting closure of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and revels in its own still-open questions, its nearly endless possibilities, and the boldness of its playful pronouncement on modern tragedy.

Kevin Riordan

Author: Kevin Riordan

Kevin Riordan is an Assistant Professor of English at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research focuses on how performance travels, and his writing has appeared in journals including Modern Drama, Theatre Annual, Theatre Topics, and Performance Research. Riordan is also a Resident Artist in the New York-based company Theater Mitu.