Macbeth, Who is that Bloodied Man?
Witches on stilts, motorbikes and imperial murder on an industrial wasteland. Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s Macbeth is Shakespeare with a carbon twist
Soon to premiere in Ireland as part of the Belfast Festival, Teatr Biuro Podrozy's Macbeth is Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy of regicide and power-lust with revving motorbikes, pyrotechnics, wafting smoke, underworld overtures and minimal text.
This brazen production is unlikely to satisfy conservative Shakespearean scholars or Renaissance purists, but it has much to offer in lieu of a faithful rendering of the time-honoured script.
The Polish theatre ensemble - specialising in large-scale outdoor theatre - present audiences with the charred bones of the Scottish play, a visual reduction of the tragedy that cuts straight to the dark heart of the action and relies on the gothic eloquence of its imagery for momentum.
In an industrial post-Second World War wasteland replete with noisy engines, exhaust fumes and burning pyres, there are naked caged prisoners, figures in military uniform and posturing that suggests outmoded fascist regimes.
The miasma is compounded by Krysztof Nowikow’s haunting score and the appearance of the purdah-clad ‘weird sisters’ who hobble on stilts wielding football rattles, making the kind of racket you imagine must predominate in the inner sanctums of Hell.
Their veiled garb clearly plays upon western anxieties about the spectre of the Taliban and our continued military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our unease at these ghouls says much about our knee-jerk tendency to conceptualise terror as something outside the familiar confines of Anglo-American orthodoxy.
These looming, spindly witches seem far more unsettling than anything that would have graced the Elizabethan stage. Beyond reach and immune to Macbeth’s gunfire, they ultimately chase our murderous anti-hero with a basket containing the skulls of his victims – a substantial number by the play’s dénouement.
Amid the cavalcades of motorbikes and the macho tussling between soldiers, Macbeth and his demonic other half hatch their morbid plans in exaggerated gestures. An ambience of easy violence and dehumanisation prevails, the regimentation of the military figures and the suspension of moral order reimiscient of the Holocaust and, again, the myriad conflicts weighing heavily on the western conscience.
Lengthy beatings are meted out on the ground and the rat-a-tat-tat of distant artillery sets the nerves on edge - the gravel arena of the stage is not unlike a Roman amphitheatre made modern.
The central evil of the play is captured in chilling imagery; Duncan’s bloodied sheets are hung out to dry while the servants gleefully copulate on a dining table. Lady Macbeth wrings her hands in a housewife's panic about tidying away the insignia of murder, transfixed by the proximity of queenly status. Torches of fire blaze in the darkness. Gloomy arias and the din of exhaust pipes are a tattoo to Macbeth’s frenzied pacing. Murder most foul becomes the status quo in this carbon-cluttered warzone.
The odd line of speech signposts the action in the most spare way, leaving the weight of narrative progression to physical movement, dramatic gesturing and the sonic assault of speeding motorbikes and firing shots. Excising most of the text means the storyline ricochets forward in a sometimes ungainly fashion, the psychological complexities of Macbeth’s will to power and Lady Macbeth’s derangement lost to a physical translation that struggles to convey nuance.
It is one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s genius, however, that equivocation and ambiguity leave us unable to make a final ethical judgement of Macbeth. After all, ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair'; good and evil are so entwined that easy categorisations collapse.
But Macbeth, Who is that Bloodied Man? is a bold visual play that eschews rumination to deal in shocking mandalas and thrusting action, blazing outlines, jarring noises. We may not hear the immortal lines but we are nevertheless made to yield, with Macbeth, to the suggestion of those horrid images which 'doth unfix my hair / and make my seated heart knock at my ribs'.
As Macbeth moves from noble warlord to crazed criminal the apocalyptic images come thick and fast, corpses accumulate and fireworks explode overhead. This is a wildly original outdoor adaptation of Shakespeare’s famed tale of murderous ambition and supernatural machination; the loss of high poetry is largely compensated by the portentous, creepy visuals and the charged physicality of the action.
Imagine Macbeth as a 21st century danse macabre, a dark carnival of warfare and diabolism that makes for perfect Hallowe'en entertainment.
Macbeth, Who is that Bloodied Man? by Teatr Biuro Podrozy runs from October 22-31 at Barrow Square, Clarendon Dock as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.