Friday, May 27, 2011

Nach, Nach

It is certainly a major coup for local companies GasHeart Theatre and Theatre Conspiracy to have secured the world English-language premiere of Heiner Müller's Macbeth: nach Shakespeare (1971), commissioning a translation from renowned director and Müller collaborator/authority Carl Weber expressly for this production, on at Performance Works till this Sunday. I just wish I liked the results better.

In their program notes, director Quinn Harris and dramturg Jack Paterson go on at length about how Müller, whose famously deconstructive approach to the Bard's work is most iconically represented in Hamletmachine (1977), took on a rewriting of Macbeth in part because he found it one of Shakespeare's least successful plays, wrongly concentrating the appetite for absolute power in one tyrannical couple and failing to account for, or even show, the effects of such power on the subordinate classes. Müller's response, in an otherwise surprisingly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's story, is to argue that the Macbeths' bloodthirstiness is symptomatic of the institutionalized exercise of power among the network of ruling elites in Scotland, with Duncan and Macduff and even, it is suggested at the very end of the play, a newly crowned Malcolm just as ruthless and violent and Machiavellian in seeking to establish their dominion over all others. Additionally, Müller inserts scenes showing that the people who pay the greatest price in such a system are not potential elite rivals, but rather the rank and file lower class subjects (the grunt soldiers, the servants, the peasants) whom the ruling classes dispatch to carry out their dirty work--or merely dispatch. In so doing, Müller inherited and extended the socially critical theatrical legacy of Brecht in the GDR, asking with pointed historical reference how Soviet-style communist rule in 1971 differed from life in Germany under the Nazis.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Bosnia, after the end of Apartheid, after the Rwandan genocide, after 9/11 and the war on terror and Abu Ghraib, after the Arab Spring: after all the afters, how do you, as Harris asks in her note, make Müller's themes newly relevant "forty years later for an audience in Vancouver"? I certainly agree with this production's creative team that those themes are perhaps more resonant than ever. I just think that in striving to demonstrate this, we are given a mish-mash of cultural references that are more confusing than coherent in their tone.

Indeed, it is the overall tone of this production (or the lack thereof) that I found the most vexing. It veers wildly from reveling in grotesque humour to solemn sermonizing, not just within single scenes, but often individual speeches. I appreciate how this is in itself an appropriate alienation-effect, keeping the audience off guard in terms of how and with whom we should be identifying in the play. But I think the comic and the serious in Harris' staging operate less in a deliberately dialectical and destabilizing theatre of ideas sort of way than in a more inchoate and impressionistic theatre of images sort of way. The abundant use of technology in this production might actually be more of a hindrance than a help, both in terms of the live video streaming (I'm not sure I understood the point of the witches' doll scene) and the pre-recorded episodes.

A case in point in terms of the latter is the scene in which the drunk and lame Porter rouses himself to attend to the knocking of Macduff and Ross. Sarah Afful's on-stage interaction with Evelyn Chew and Courtney Lancaster (who play soldiers, but who also double, along with Afful, as the three witches) is very funny and affecting. But her slow hobble to the stage exit is followed by an even longer video sequence in which we follow on closed-circuit TV her progress along the length of Performance Works' vertical lobby to the main outside entrance to Granville Island. The Porter's reward for letting Macduff and Ross in is having the hand severed from his one remaining arm, but the shock of this gratuitous violence is undercut not just by the distancing effects of the video medium, but because that medium had also previously established the tone of this scene as one of comic play. Thus, when Macduff and Ross "re-enter" the stage and toss a prosthetic hand at the soldiers (who like us have been following the events on screen) it elicits a giggle rather than a gasp.

In fact, this is the case with all of the bodily appendages that get hacked off and prosthetically waved around in this production, and I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed by what I had expected from earlier reviews to be a stage awash in blood and the detritus of human violence. Bright splotches of red do splatter the stage (and individual actors' bodies) at several strategic moments, but not enough, I would argue, to signal the mise-en-scène of theatrical extremity and horror that I think Harris and her crew are after here. Either go all out like Polanski and flood the stage in rivers of blood (expensive and not easy to clean up, I admit), or else telegraph the shock of the violence in other, more subtle ways. To this end, the single red splotch of colour that found its way onto the otherwise immaculate white blouse of Jennifer Mawhinney's Lady Macbeth during Duncan's murder (likely an accident) was far more visually powerful to me than the various drips and pools that collected over the course of the evening on the stage floor, and which anyway in the end had more of an inadvertently humourous acoustic effect, as in stepping through them the actors' shoes inevitably became sticky, a sound thereafter reproduced whenever they walked on stage.

The uneasy tension between the comic and the serious extends, in my mind, to problems in transitions between scenes, and to an at times indistinguishable doubling of roles. It is perhaps Harris' point to suggest that the witches and the soldiers are more or less of a piece in terms of their powerlessness to predict anything other than what is the normal course of events under a dictatorship. But modulating performances and vocal registers a bit more would at least help audience members distinguish who is who in a given scene, especially when performers rush on and off the stage in such a frenzy.

There is a great deal to admire in this production, not least another fantastic performance by Mawhinney (so amazing in Theatre Conspiracy and Rumble Productions' Blackbird). And everyone involved is to be applauded many times over for realizing that Müller's play had an afterlife in English. I'm just not sure they are yet sure of what--or who--they were after in their staging.

Nach, nach?


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