Macbeth, just opened at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF) in Stockbridge, is not only one of the shortest of the Shakespeare plays, but also his goriest. While the murder of Duncan, King of Scotland takes place offstage, many other horrific murders are in full view. Even the red of Lady Macbeth’s gown reminds us that there is a trail of blood from the opening war scene to the severed head of Macbeth as the lights fade out. Macbeth director Eric Hill says he wants “the audience to feel the presence of murder both before and after it happens.”
What surprised me was just how much the little-known Suzuki approach to acting influenced this Macbeth. Most people who go to the theatre just go to see a play, and are little aware of the compexities that undergird most productions. For example Hill points out that “The witches are a big sell for Shakespeare, that is what he would hook his audience with then. Although he probably never believed in witchcraft, he certainly used it to create an atmosphere in the play where that is something to be dealt with.”
What he didn’t say is that the witches in his Macbeth would be influenced by Japanese Butoh, an avant garde technique noted for its grotesque imagery and hyper-controlled movement. This Macbeth is also very heavily influenced by Suzuki, a form of acting that most audiences are clueless about but which Hill specializes in, and is the trademark of this Macbeth.
When Kate Maguire, artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival first announced their choice of Macbeth for 2010, there was some consternation from Shakespeare & Company. I noticed it during the prelude to Richard III in which the Lenox players made fun of the BTF Macbeth, in a good natured way of course.
The theatre business is incestuous and Maguire was with S & Co for many years. and Hill is a renowned Shakespeare scholar, so why not. As Hill said to me: “My answer to why Macbeth now? is Why not Macbeth anytime!” The other side of the argument is just how silly it would be to limit Tina and Tony’s S & Co to just Shakespeare.
Understanding this background and friendly rivalry, we arrive at the moment of truth: how do the two companies compare?
Refreshingly different. This Macbeth is not something you would ever see at Shakespeare & Company. Its style is so radical and peculiar that it offers a whole fresh take on the masterpiece. Eric Hill’s direction is one in which west meets east.
The Suzuki style used in this production is 180 degrees from the layered psychological approach used at S & Co. On stage, this means that the actors in Macbeth surge onto the stage and then virtually freeze in position to emote. For long stretches of the play the actors have both feet firmly planted on the floor (a central concept of Suzuki) assume a correct linear posture, hands lightly curled at their sides, and deliver their lines. Head and facial movements are kept to a minimum, and even the vocal inflections are tightly reigned in. Lines are tossed back and forth, and they are remarkably clear and understandable, a blessing in any Shakespearean play. Except for a view sotto voce passages, even those of us with some hearing loss (common to iPod and headphone users) could hear every word they uttered. Remarkable.
As one might expect in a Macbeth influenced by eastern philosophies, the alternation of action and stillness was like visual yin and yang on stage, the action serving to advance the plot, the dialogue to clarify it. The large cast was totally in control of the play, with nary a slip along the way, and it contained many of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s most familiar faces.
In the brief talk with Hill, it was suggested that his actors could be called a dream cast. “Dream cast, yes, it’s a perfect cast. It’s like a good machine, you get to a certain place, you wind it up and let it run. The play is like that, once it gets going, it just hurtles down the tracks. So I try not to get in the way of that, you just let that go.”
Indeed, this Macbeth does sprint from beginning to end in just over two hours, plus an intermission. Part of this is due to the efficiency of acting that the Suzuki method engenders.
Other than the speedy rush of actors to get onstage and then off for each scene, most of the play is actually infused with a stillness that is startling. The bodies are relatively motionless, except when you can almost see the director throw a switch and suddenly gesticulation, movement and action are turned on, and then off again. Suzuki brings attention to the voice at the expense of the body. It is like watching talking heads on stage for much of the play. The only things moving are the mouths.
This, of course, can be subconsciously unsettling to an audience, for as desirable as it is for the actors to be “centered” the audience has few clues as to the underlying passions beyond the words and their often subtle inflections. As an academic exercise, I found this Macbeth endlessly fascinating, but as entertainment, well, it’s an awful lot to ask of an average ticket buyer. Unless they are clued in first, then they would get it.
For the theatre-goer gesture is always tied intimately to the words being spoken; Suzuki just prefers that the words represent that human gesture. If you read his basic book, Suzuki also believes that by not moving, the actor can look grander than the stage itself, and in the many tableaus seen during this Macbeth, the arrangement of the actors on stage were indeed painterly.
As Macbeth, C.J. Wilson was most successful in working within the Suzuki style to create a living, breathing character. As Banquo, Walter Hudson used his silent physical presence to best advantage, carefully composing his physical stances. His appearances terrorized Macbeth and made the King’s hallucinations an overpowering presence.
Tim McGeever as Macduff played his role with enormous strength, conviction and humanity.
Less successful was Keira Naughton whose enforced minimalism let all the air out of Lady Macbeth. In her sleepwalking sequence she was allowed nowhere the dramatic intensity that the role demands. Even Brandy Caldwell’s Lady Macduff was far too inhibited.
When utilized, it appears that Suzuki works best for the men, and penalizes women actors, who often have more complex and emotion laden roles than the men. While all of the Macbeth performances are expert, they do tend to be pretty bloodless, drained of the emotional depth you find at Shakespeare & Company which prizes a heavily psychological approach to Shakespeare’s works. You need screamingly bloody performances to convey the true intensity of this bloody play.
The production design by Joseph Vargo was massive, with nicely simulated blocks of granite and stone acting as both setting and “teasers” – those staggered side flats that march upstage on and through which the actors make their entrances and exits. For those who are aware of the BTF’s main stage shortcomings, it was with great relief that we saw the structural columns so cleverly hidden.
The lighting design by Dan Kotowitz was remarkably simple, with most scenes lit simply and directly with clear ungelled lights. Special effects were saved for the mad scenes, and those where the witches appear or murders take place.
As to the script, while some minor snipping took place for this production, nothing was lost. Scholars argue that it’s possible that the original Macbeth was longer, that one or two pivotal scenes may have gotten lost in the dust of history. Shakespeare’s Macbeth did not please the royal personages of his time: it was banned from performance for 50 years. That it survives in any form is a miracle.
So is the Suzuki method compatible with Shakespeare? Suzuki himself does not view his method as the only way to perform but describes it as one working hypothesis. As seen here, his approach to theatre production is radically non-naturalistic and indulges non-Japanese actors in a style created for a nation of people with a different body type (shorter arms and legs) than most Americans.
The actors who study Suzuki often also study The Method, or Meisner, Adler, Spolin and others. Many actors – and directors – put them all in their toolbox and draw from them as needed,. Others create their own unique style. For all the emphasis I give this Macbeth for using Suzuki, Hill himself is more than the poster boy for Suzuki. He incorporated a variety of influences. It’s unavoidable in theatre.
But while it is not billed as such, I think this Macbeth is the closest those of us in the Berkshires will ever get to seeing a true Suzuki style play, and that provides a pretty good reason for seeing the BTF’s venture into Shakespeare.
It remains one of the most fascinating plays he ever wrote, and whether the actors are standing around like formalistic Egyptian staturary, arms stiff at the side, head motionless, or grounded in the freer Greek Kouros style with arms and legs alive and in motion, you still get Shakespeare.
It’s the words that count, and they have never been clearer and more unaffected by excess than they are here. Even in this relatively bloodless style of presentation, Shakespeare at BTF is theatre that matters.
Berkshire Theatre Festival presents Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Directed by Eric Hill, Scenic Designer – Joseph Varago, Costume Designer – Olivera Gajic, Lighting Designer – Dan Kotlowitz, Composer/Sound Designer – J Hagenbuckle.
Lady Macduff/Gentlewoman – Brady Caldwell
Malcolm – Aaron Costa Ganis
Bloody Captain/lst Murderer/Seton – Jesse Hinson
Banquo – Walter Hudson
Mentieth/Lord – Rob McFadyen
Macduff – Tim McGeever
Lennox – Johnnie McQuarley
Witch #3/Angus/3rd Murderer – Equiano Mosien
Lady Macbeth – Keira Naughton
Duncan/2nd Murderer/Doctor – Ralph Petillo
Witch #2/Ross – Tommy Schrider
Witch #1/Porter – Elizabeth Terry
Macbeth – C.J. Wilson
Ensemble: Aaron Barcelo, Sam Gilliam, Jake Gold, Hanna Koczela, Mitchell Land, Jonathan Richey, Cooper Stanton, Rider Stanton.
Plays August 4-14, 2010, two hours plus one 15 minute intermission. At the Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA. http://www.berkshiretheatre.org/