Sunday, April 6, 2008

Macbeth

Today we saw the BAM production of "Macbeth" as presented by Cichetser Festival Theater production. Directed by Rupert Goold, the play was at the Lyceum theater in Manhattan, and starred Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.

One couldn't imagine a more current or chilling Macbeth. Right from the very beginning, as the troops storm into the underground bunker, and the nurses (who also turn out to be the witches) roll in the wounded man on the stretcher, you know you're in for something completely different. There's no Monty Python here, however; instead, we found ourselves in the grip of a snake that slowly, mercilessly tightened its coils until our very breath itself was suspended.

The production turns the play into a contemporary commentary on totalitarianism, with uncanny twists on modern culture. The actors wear jackboots and camouflage; they brandish pistols and AK-47's. Electronic hums, sparks and white noise saturate the stage. Erratic videos projected behind the players turn the environment into surrealistic montages of marching troops, interrogated hostages, and sylvan forests. A high pitched, unrelenting Lady Macbeth broadcasts disturbingly vampiric overtones. The witches could hardly be more revolting; twitching, spastic creatures who are dressed in uniforms of hope and light, but whose behavior oozes out of the darkest corners of our collective unconscious. Their chanted spells are delivered in a perverse, syncopated rap. And in a superlative and unmistakable act of homage, Banquo's blood spills out of the eerie light of a caged elevator to flood the backdrop for the stage: an unabashed tribute to Kubrick's "the Shining."

Nothing, however, trumps the scene in which the witch nurse nuns reanimate corpses laid on gurneys in order to channel and deliver their dreadful prophecy. It's probably one of the most appropriate, sickest, and downright ingenious pieces of theater I've ever seen.

The director manages to bring out Macbeth's human side: a side all too often ignored in our rush to condemn him as a monster. And indeed, it's Macbeth's very humanity itself that makes him a monster.

Today's Hollywood villains are cardboard emperors of evil who lust after badness, and take a stupid, simple joy in it. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, have consciences they struggle with. And it is their very willingness to do evil despite this which horrifies us the most. This is where real evil, if there is such a thing, arises: it is in the recognition of wrong, combined with a will to do it anyway. This is what Gurdjieff called black magic; and Macbeth reeks of black magic, a world that still has a moral compass which has nonetheless gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps what's most unsettling about this production of Macbeth is, in the end, just how comfortable it makes itself with its references to Hitler, to Stalin, to everything we remember about propaganda, control, and war. Nothing has changed since Shakespeare penned this play; mankind still falls far too easily under these influences. And in this case, the old shoe fits the new foot far, far too well.

Only a greater awareness of ourselves might pull us out of such a swamp; and yet, in the grip of our outer passions, we invariably end up, as Macbeth finally says to us, as stars in "a tale told by an idiot." Without an inner "stop" to guide him--a moment that materializes for him only once, at the beginning of the play-- he has no control over his destiny. He becomes the almost reluctant pawn and victim of every influence he encounters.

What goes wrong with Macbeth and his wife? Gulled and hypnotized by the tidal force of their external passions, they succumb: and in doing so, the poisonous waters gradually pollute the innermost recesses of their souls, until there is no rest, and nowhere to hide. While watching, I was reminded of the fact that once we have ingested the monstrous, there is no way to spit it back up. We carry every act, no matter how well or ill-considered, to the grave.

We must consider our ways, for, as the bard says: "What is done cannot be undone."

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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