Year of Shakespeare: 2008: MacbethTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Aneta Mancewicz

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.


2008: Macbeth, dir. Grzegorz Jarzyna (TR Warszawa), Edinburgh International Festival, 16 August 2012 at the Royal Highland Centre, Lowland Hall, Edinburgh

By Aneta Mancewicz, Central School of Speech and Drama

In 2008: Macbeth directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna (TR Warszawa), war is the main protagonist. Its appearance is made disturbingly familiar through references to the Iraq invasion, action movies and computer games. Performed at the Royal Highland Centre, it was one of the highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival 2012. Although the production was shown in a trimmed format in comparison with its earlier version, 2007: Macbeth, it has still stirred discussion among viewers and critics about the aims and boundaries of Shakespearean appropriation.

Jarzyna’s adaptation of Macbeth uses several approaches to staging Shakespeare that have become popular in the last decades: it updates the setting and the language, it rearranges and reduces the plot, and it incorporates new scenes and references. The events evolve in a Middle Eastern location suggestive of the wartime Iraq. The political context is crucial for this production; it premiered in 2005 in a munitions factory in Warsaw that exported weapons to Iraq where Polish troops were stationed. Jarzyna used a modernized translation by Stanisław Barańczak and extensively adapted it, alluding to war films  (“Scotland 52 landed”) and computer games (the recurrent automated answer “Yes, Sir!”). As Shakespeare’s dialogues and soliloquies are reduced to a terse military idiom, the action moves rapidly from one murder to another. The scenario has a circular structure, which is reminiscent of repetitive power struggles, defined by Jan Kott as the Grand Mechanism. The performance opens with a film-like sequence, in which Macbeth (Cezary Kosiński) defies the orders of Duncan (Mirosław Zbrojewicz), and instead of returning to the military base, ambushes and beheads Macdonwald’s accomplice Ryazan (Karan Bhopal) in a high-risk commando raid. The production closes with Macduff (Michał Żurawski) cutting off Macbeth’s head, which Malcom (Piotr Głowacki) triumphantly shows to the audience.

What distinguishes this staging from other recent versions of Macbeth, including Maja Kleczewska’s sexually charged adaptation at the Globe to Globe Festival, is the ingenious merging of modern media and genres. The performance is a mixture of a horror movie, a war thriller and a gory computer game. The action develops in a two-storey building whose great size and grim appearance traps and downscales the actors (set design by Stephanie Nelson and Agnieszka Zawadowska). The edifice is divided into five areas that can be separately lit up or darkened, allowing for swift changes of scenes (lightning design by Jacqueline Sobiszewski). The action unfolds through a cinematic montage rather than a theatrical flow. Furthermore, the division into several spaces evokes the scenario of early role-playing games, in which the players move between rooms and levels. The analogy suggests that the protagonists might not be fully in charge of their actions. They are not independent individuals, but figures in a virtual environment, where they are being played rather than playing.

References to the modern media are introduced not only through the set, but also through the cinematic use of sound throughout the performance (music by Abel Korzeniowski, Jacek Grudzień and Piotr Domiński), as well as through multiple screens and projections (video design by Bartek Macias). The projections give the audience a closer view on the relationships between the characters and on their emotions. At the critical moments in the plot, the protagonists appear in close-ups. When Lady Macbeth (Aleksandra Konieczna) urges her husband to murder Duncan, her enlarged image appears on the wall, while Macbeth is nervously pacing next to it, deliberating his decision. The scene is a powerful visualization of Lady Macbeth’s overblown ego that menaces and dominates Macbeth. By analogy, during the “unsex me” speech, the heroine stands in front of the projection of Macbeth, whose image and words incite her to cruelty.

Apart from mixing live and recorded imagery, 2008: Macbeth incorporates the movie medium through spectacular effects and allusions. Jarzyna’s adaptation abounds in elements evocative of war thrillers: pyrotechnic stunts, military combats and the landing of helicopters represented with the use of lights and sounds. These effects are interspersed with moments reminiscent of horror, such as the apparition of burka-clad Hekate (Danuta Stenka), or the naked ghost of Banquo (Tomasz Tyndyk). The production features also a few uncanny characters, such as an Elvis Presley impersonator entertaining the soldiers, or a human-sized rabbit bearing witness to the downfall of Macbeth’s household. Their presence gives a nightmarish quality to the performance, echoing cinematic representations of evil: the unnerving protagonists from David Lynch’s movies and the giant bunny from Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

Introducing images of violence and evil through allusions to cinema, games and pop culture, Jarzyna’s Macbeth deliberately refrains from addressing moral issues in the play. There is no sense of right and wrong to guide the protagonists, particularly as they appear to be programmed into cinematic and computer game scenarios. Their emotions are stripped to bare instincts and desires, while they strive to survive the nightmare of war. Such an approach to the Shakespearean characters is reflected in the acting style of the TR Warszawa ensemble: visceral, brutal and yet cold. The most powerful performances belong to Kosinski and Stenka, who play their parts with confidence and charisma. Konieczna’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as a conniving Eastern woman is less impressive. The heroine’s death caused by the malfunction of a washing machine has drawn the attention of the critics more than the actress’s performance.

A few reviewers have observed that Jarzyna’s pop culture adaptation of Macbeth narrows down the interpretative potential of the tragedy, since it downplays Shakespeare’s poetic language and the characters’ moral dilemmas. It might also be argued, however, that in its portrayal of war as a pre-programmed scenario, the production does make an important point about the lack of ethical concerns in recent representations of military conflicts. This observation may illuminate not only our understanding of Macbeth, but also of contemporary media and politics.

What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Have your say in the comments board below.

Interested in watching a video recording of this production? You can do so here on The Guardian website. 


For more reviews of productions in the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: Aneta Mancewicz

Aneta Mancewicz is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and an Assistant Professor of English at the Kazimierz Wielki University, Bydgoszcz, Poland. She is currently writing a book about intermedial Shakespeare productions in Europe.