Macbeth (The Notes), based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, devised and directed by Dan Jemmett, written by Dan Jemmett and David Ayala for Compagnie des Petites Heures, Sortie Ouest, Béziers, France, 15 January 2014, stalls, left.
Review by Florence March and Janice Valls-Russell, IRCL, Université Montpellier 3
Dan Jemmett’s engagement with Shakespeare has connections with France’s Languedoc region. He produced Les trois Richard [The Three Richards] at Montpellier’s annual, open-air Printemps des Comédiens Festival in June 2012 and was back in January 2014 for the première of his take on Macbeth. A fifty-minute drive from Montpellier, in the middle of (frequently windswept) vineyards on the outskirts of Béziers, Sortie Ouest is the Printemps des Comédiens’ winter-season outpost.
Almost disappointingly, there was no wind to cause flapping of canvas and other evocative atmospherics, as we stepped from the night outside into a marquee with a dark, plain stage: Macbeth’s ‘night’, la nuit, that acted as a leitmotiv throughout the show, frequently linked to ‘horror’ and ‘unrepresentable’.
Macbeth (The Notes) is a post-performance debriefing session between a fictional director, David Ayala, alone on stage, and members of his company – us, the audience – after the opening night of a production of Macbeth. Dan Jemmett approaches Macbeth through a running commentary on all the possibilities the text offers the stage, inviting the audience to approach the play as an open text and his own show as a process rather than a product. This bold approach favours an original pact, based on a dynamic relationship, between the actor and his audience. Ayala addressed spectators individually in the familiar ‘tu’ form (despite the title, the play was performed mostly in French), as Stéphanie, Jean-Claude, Rachid, Nora, Claire, Thierry – actors, designers, costume-makers, sound or light technicians.
Dressed in a dark suit and open-necked shirt, notebook in hand, he bounced in, praising everyone before pinpointing the stronger and weaker points of their Macbeth. This was a very physical performance, with a brisk tempo. Ayala snapped in and out of his role as director, houselights up, moving around the stage, addressing members of the audience, then seguing into key passages of the play or less conspicuous ones – such as the old man’s description of the tempest – as he stood in a spotlight that focused mainly on his face, with the house going dark, before leaping back into the role of director as the lights came up again. Tattered nerves behind the apparent bonhomie were suggested by bouts of irritation at technical hitches that needed to be ironed out before the next performance: squeaking castor wheels on which a miniature Scottish castle was wheeled onto the stage, the gun used to try and kill Banquo that didn’t go off… As he spoke there was, of course, nothing to be seen onstage.
The illusion of informality allowed Jemmett and the audience to question not only the source text but also the adaptive process. The fictional director decided to delete Hecate’s part in Act 3 and suggested cutting Lennox, an embedded figure of the spectator whose very presence conditions the show, before reading his lines and changing his mind. Jemmett thus parodied his own stance as adapter and director. Occasionally slipping into the English text, Ayala debated with himself over translation issues: should ‘Thane’ be translated into French, and how? How should one understand ‘amazedly’?
Following in Shakespeare’s tracks, Jemmett also questions the very medium he uses in metatheatrical references. How do you bridge the gap between dramatic and performance time? How do you enable the audience to visualise what is not visible onstage? What kind of body does a witch have? At this point, the fictional director insisted on the audience closing their eyes, calling on the spectator’s imagination for assistance, then went on to offer a metonymic representation of the witches by twitching his face into three different grimaces.
In the end, Ayala mused, it’s probably simpler to do away with all forms of artifice, including Banquo’s ghost. We were plunged into the heart of the paradox of theatre: ‘it’s not about words, it’s about pictures’; ‘think of Shakespeare as the cinema of the Renaissance’. Throughout most of the performance, which mixed slapstick and moments of great intensity, it was through an alliance of words and the actor’s body that Ayala conjured up his production of Macbeth: as he gestured, moved and spoke, we ‘watched’ the video screen at the back of a steadfastly dark set, picturing the heath and battlements. We ‘heard’ the sound effects (and those squeaking wheels), we ‘observed’ Duncan in his bath, with his cigar and Scotch, and Macbeth coming up to murder him. We gasped as Ayala, reading the passage about Duncan’s horses, became the self-cannibalising beasts – a moment of ‘absolute evil’.
How does one ‘kill’ a child onstage? Ayala-director opted for a marionette, miming the puppet-holder then the puppet, legs and arms jerking as it lay on the floor – but the disarticulated puppet was overacted and some members of the audience laughed through the whole sequence.
The director grabbed his bilingual edition of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the canonical Pléiade collection and started reading the passage where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and children. But he broke off, overwhelmed by the emotional charge of the scene, acknowledging the actor’s solitude, which obliquely referred to his own – Ayala’s – in this demanding solo performance, and the limits of textual gloss – be it that of the fictional director, the real one, or readers of Shakespeare in the audience…
Such direct, physical engagement with the text, metaphorised by the Pléiade volume, can only find a visual resolution in performance. Ayala stepped behind a see-through black screen upstage, where he cast off, with his clothes, his part as fictional director. Naked, imposing, firmly planted on the boards, Ayala summoned up the physicality of the theatre. Stepping into a white bathtub that had been concealed until then, he immersed himself by degrees in the bloodbath, both Duncan and Macbeth, in a parodic scene of self-baptism. He raised his blood-smeared hands that could not be washed clean of sin, looking directly at the spectators who were left to gloss the scene for themselves, taking over from the fictional director who had vanished from the stage. Ayala and Jemmett composed a powerful final tableau as they superimposed red on black and white, blood on foul and fair: in the theatre, ‘words, words, words’ call forth images.
Dripping blood Ayala/Macbeth slowly walked downstage toward the audience to deliver the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ soliloquy which, beyond giving Shakespeare the final say, sounded like a recurrent invitation to the audience to return the next evening, and the evenings after that, to pursue this collective exploration of the Shakespearean text in performance.
Florence March is professor in 16th and 17th century British drama at Université Montpellier 3 and a member of the IRCL, at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Her current research focuses on Shakespearean stage configurations in 20th and 21st century Europe, the place and function of Shakespeare in the Avignon and Montpellier international Festivals, and the relationship between stage and audience or ‘pact of performance’. She is the author of Shakespeare au Festival d’Avignon. Configurations textuelles et scéniques, 2004-2010 (2012).
Read a full-length version of this review in Cahiers Élisabéthains 86 (spring 2014).