I ought to preface this review with the statement “I do not speak any German”. Although one of my personal goals for my year abroad is to learn German, at this current junction of the year I can order a cup of tea and thank people, and that would be the end of it. However, whilst studying in Munich I have been lucky enough to participate in a Shakespeare course (obviously taught in English) and a byproduct of doing this course involves being able to sample the best Shakespeare Germany has to offer. A few months ago I was subjected to a rather obscure and ‘millenial-esque’ The Tempest, wherein it viewed more like chick-lit than the bard. Last week saw the opening of Munich’s prestigious Residenztheaters production of Macbeth. During the famous Witches opening scene, I got rather excited, as they announced, in English, not German, their famous line “When shall we three meet again, in thunder, in lightening or in rain?” However my lingua franca knowledge ended there as I was subjected to, arguably, one of Shakespeare’s heaviest, bloodiest and language dense productions in Deutsch. Despite the language barrier, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and the piece was undoubtedly engaging. This production was definitely not the traditional Macbeth, as it undertook contemporary liberties imbued with more traditional elements. The first part of the play, in my opinion, out shined the second; with the introduction of the witches, the murder of Duncan, and the prophetic banquet scene surpassing one of the most infamous scenes, Lady Macbeth’s suicide.
This scene although bizarre, resonated with me, perhaps because one of the few words I know in German is ‘Bitte’ and therefore hearing it yelled repeatedly to no avail evinces the genre of tragedy.
Despite being an eponymous play, the real protagonist in this production was the stage. At a first glance it appeared mundane, a black square atop the established stage and yet as the scenes changes the box moved, rose, spun, continuously moving the story forward. The staging was extremely simple, limited to this tertiary stage with various metal rods and swords placed throughout.
I am always intrigued with how producers and directors create their ‘bearded’ witches, as their depiction sets the tone for the rest of the play. The Residenztheater’s’ portrayal certainly did not disappoint. The ensemble became the Witches personal soapbox; as these skinny gnarled creatures scurried onto the backs of faceless ensemble members with long white hair covering their faces and going all the way to the floor; leaving the audience with a rather animalistic perception of them. They clicked, hissed and chanted; giving everyone in the audience inspiration for their nightmares (or maybe just mine). The Residenztheater offered a companion to the Witches in Lady Macduff, who is present from the first scene, a character in the original play we only ‘meet’ in act four. This production had Lady Macduff, walk calmly on stage, her face painted in blood and play the role of a ‘Greek Chorus’ to various characters on the play and continuously contributing little tidbits of knowledge.
Despite my limited language knowledge, the dynamic between Banquo and Macbeth from the get-go was evidently brotherly and their initial lighthearted banter, juxtaposed with Macbeth’s subsequent betrayal made it all the more heartbreaking. Further, as aforementioned almost every scene took place on the dynamic tertiary stage, with the exception of Banquo’s Murder which took place ‘below. This heightened the wrongness of Macbeth’s decision to murder his brethren, essentially debasing himself and stooping to too low a level in pursuit of his ambitions. Juxtaposed with Lady Macbeth and Macbeth sharing a sultry dance up on this ‘high’ stage, whilst simultaneously leaving the Murderers to dispose of Banquo ‘below’.
I always try to twist the trite read of Lady Macbeth, where she isn’t the manipulative, barren woman, however this production had no qualms with portraying her as so. We open to seeing her, lying on the ever-changing stage slanted downward, wearing just a slip and she’s cackling. Lying on her back like a girl reading a love letter from a school crush, and cackling. Despite her more conventional characterization the relationship with Macbeth was certainly different than the norm as, to the surprise of the audience, the lead couple were, in my eyes hyper-sexualized. A departure from the hackneyed marriage of convenience ethos often used to characterize them. Upon meeting one another their embrace is more than merely warm and this continued throughout subsequent scenes. Their hyper-sexualized dynamic was not limited to touching and kissing but also playful chasing viewed as sexual foreplay. Lady Macduffs aside statements that Macbeth is merely using her for her body as well as enforcing that her purpose is merely to bear children bolster this hyper sexualized vision.
Although the first part of this review lauds the performance, the second part was underwhelming. Somehow scenes such as Lady Macbeth’s suicide and Macbeth’s own demise were anti-climactic. I appreciated characters such as Malcolm being played by women, however their scenes were insignificant. The murder of Lady Macduff and her children was obscure to say the least. Murderer’s 1 and 2, were these vaudeville like actors, attempting to add some humor into a very dark scene. This attempt at macabre humor although most likely was to scandalize the audience, for lack of a better phrase, rubbed me the wrong way. As aforementioned Lady Macduff was a narrator like character throughout the play dropping ‘truth bombs’ about the dynamics of the relationships, such as Macbeth merely wanting Lady Macbeth for her body and as a byproduct her ability to procreate. To see her, a headstrong character, initially dismissive of the murderers ability to kill, instantly switch to a pleading woman, for the safety of her child was disturbing and also non sequitur. Further, I felt that the play disregarded women’s roles as ‘people’ but rather viewed them as objects, reflected in the murderer’s removal of his belt, although used to tie up Lady Macduff it could also be construed as an act of sexual violence. As this production had significantly altered previous scenes, anything could happen and I feared that they may even depict the rape of Lady Macduff. A character seen as a wise mother in this production, reduced to nothing more than a submissive woman, helpless against the aggression of men. This scene although bizarre resonated with me, perhaps because one of the few words I know in German is ‘Bitte’ and therefore hearing it yelled repeatedly to no avail evinces the genre of tragedy.
I am not a fan of dark plays, I view performance as an escape and therefore appreciate the Hollywood style of depicting the world through rose-colored lenses, and yet in the play my favorite scene has always been Lady Macbeth’s suicide. To an extent it is her redemption scene, where you recognize that she’s not a sociopath and the murders have weighed on her, so much so that she feels compelled to take her own life. Again, I do not speak German, so I had no choice but to observe her actions and demeanour. One facet of this scene which stood out, primarily because it’s a source of contention when it comes to characterizing Lady Macbeth, where she takes a shawl and wraps it to resemble a baby and began quieting this imaginary child. Literary critics often argue that what allows lady Macbeth to be so cunning is her lack of children (any visible children). This scene gives insight into perhaps a ruined woman, who in an era where heirs were essential was unable to produce a child, forcing her into a precarious position.
Despite appreciating this tender moment, Lady Macbeth, in this production opts to slit her own wrists rather than jump out of the tower, although each director/producer is entitled to their interpretation, the enigmatic stage was the perfect place to ‘jump’. I felt that the audience was sitting on tenterhooks waiting for this dramatic fall, which never came. Further, Lady Macbeth bled out in front of Macbeth and also shared her death with an ensemble member Macbeth decided to kill in a moment of rage (presumably Young Siward) weakening the brevity of her scene. This ‘weakening’ I felt continued right up until the moment Macduff kills Macbeth in close proximity with a knife to the jugular. Overall the ending was anticlimactic, when compared to the first ‘act’, a disappointing end to a promising production.