Shakespeare has always been calling me out. In second grade, I borrowed all his tragedies from the library and was forced to ask myself what is your actual reading level, tiny Sophia? In eleventh grade, Hamlet made me ask myself the question all seventeen-year-olds must ask: is it actually cool to be angsty? But never before has a Shakespeare text left me asking the question why am I eating an ice pop? Do I now like grape?
That’s where I stood during intermission of Stanford Theater Laboratory’s production of Macbeth: on the deck of the Elliot Programming Center, unable to chat about my thoughts on Act I with my friends because of an unfortunate series of overzealous chewing that left my mouth stuffed with fruity ice. It was just as well that I couldn’t talk. As the ice pop, which had been handed out to the audience by the actors who play the witches during intermission, melted, I started processing the performance and the questions it forced me to face.
This Macbeth is bloodier and more brutal than Shakespeare’s original. Leave it to a German, Heiner Müller, to turn a bloodbath into a butchery. But by choosing this adaptation, director Michael Hunter (TAPS Department) and producer Noemi Berkowitz (TAPS and Psychology, ‘16) give themselves and the rest of the creative team the option for experimentation and risk in dealing with the violence that strikes more viscerally in Müller’s version than in the original. Their brand of removing exceptional elements from the reality of live actors comes in the form of puppets and dummies, beautifully and painstakingly hand-crafted by San Francisco artist Niki Uleha. Most of the puppeteering happens on small tables controlled by the witches. The almost crude-looking marionettes exist in the worlds of Birnam Woods, the castle of a treacherous lord, and streets and squares inhabited by the peasants. The witches (Johannah Brady, Colette Brannan, and Levi Jennings), in their industrial carpenter-like aprons, skilfully voice and operate many of puppets. Brady’s excellent timing and natural presence stand out as the three actors float between the worlds of the supernatural and the everyman.
Somewhere in between their fluctuations lies the realm of Macbeth (Andre Amarotico, TAPS and Political Science, ‘16) and Lady Macbeth (Noemi Berkowitz), who, along with Raine Hoover (Macduff) exhibit a caliber of acting talent rarely seen in such high concentration on Stanford stages. As unreal as their murderous rise to power, their interactions with tiny puppets, their respective and rapid descents into madness are, Macbeth and Lady M are believable. Berkowitz delivers the famous “unsex me” monologue into a mirror as she gets lost in her visions of grandeur that is perfectly broken by Macbeth’s interruptive laugh, followed by a vulnerable glance between them and genuine joint laughter. These moments continue throughout the performance and set-up a beautiful series of contradictions that makes their demise all the more profound. When Lady M expresses her desire to watch a debtor’s deadly flogging (carried out on a puppet and streamed live to a screen in front of the performance space) to prepare herself for the murders that she and Macbeth plan to carry out, Macbeth chuckles at her womanly trepidation as she closes her eyes and counts to twenty. This counting acts not only as an excellent scene transition, but parallels a later moment at the banquet when Macbeth’s terrors get the best of him and he, kneeling, wraps his arms around Lady M’s waist and buries his face in her legs. “Weak man,” spits Lady M as she seamlessly switches between scorning her husband and the happy hostess doing damage control at a dinner party (a skill that women might just be born with). At different points, each cannot bear to see what lies before them.
The moving development of both characters individually and of their relationship is one of the most impressive and impressionable elements of Macbeth. They both exhibit real weakness, ambition, tension, fear, desire, disappointment, exhaustion, uncertainty, and tenderness. By the time Macbeth rejects Lady M sexually because he has become so disillusioned with power and paranoia, the audience’s collective heart breaks upon the realization that both characters are lost to themselves and the world they have built around them.
In traditional productions of Macbeth, the question that comes from Macbeth and Lady M’s relationship may be am I destroying myself to get where I am? But in Müller’s world, we see more in depth into the lives of those that the Macbeths brutalize. All in puppet form, we see the widow of the murdered debtor sobbing by her husband’s body. We see Banquo’s murder. We see the assassins meet with live Macbeth. We see Macbeth and his cronies burn, torture, and skin alive a disloyal lord and his castle. The question becomes who have I destroyed to get where I am?
This question might not be as salient to the audience at EPC: we are not as bloody, as brutal, as delusional. But another integral theme of this adaptation comes directly from the text. “Sleep no more” is an oft-quoted line made all the more famous by Punchdrunk’s immersive show, but in this version, “no more” comes up time and time again. Macduff’s wife and child are no more, a heart beats no more, Macbeth can sleep no more, know no more, see no more, hurt no more. I am left asking what is the threshold?
At what point can Lady M tolerate no more? We don’t know, because we only see her sleepwalking under a green-tinted light live streamed from a hallway backstage onto the screen. But there is a threshold, because she kills herself. At what point can we as the audience see no more? When Macbeth suggests throwing corpses, including Lady M’s, at the advancing English army?
This is the ultimate success of Macbeth–it begs the question, how far can this go? The creative and acting teams have tackled that question within the realm of theater. There are puppets, masks, soundscape effects, ice pops, lightsabers, and more experiments that should remain a surprise. They keep going. In a reflective sense, we as the audience see how far characters can go and are forced to think about real world applications of allowing ambition to go too far. Are we the the motionless wooden popsicle sticks with drawn on expressions that surround Malcolm’s throne at the show’s end? Through passivity, do we become the masses of bystanders that prevent a necessary “no more”? This question of pushing and creating limits finds a fitting home in experimental theater, but it is up to us to choose how far to take the question that Macbeth skillfully presents us with: in theater, in personal life, in a global sense, at what point must there be no more?
Photos courtesy of Frank Chen