In Shakespeare’s time, controversy raged about the values of words, images, and actions. Is God’s word meant to be proclaimed in liturgy, or is God most effectively encountered in personal reading of scripture? Can images and physical gestures support communication with God? Authorities across the sixteenth century suppressed physical practices of worship, white-washed interiors of churches, and burned books, images, and persons in fierce struggles over sensuous forms.
Recent years have seen an upsurge in debate about whether Shakespeare wrote for theatrical performance or sought to author literary works. Many persons who attend Shakespeare’s plays leave exhausted from struggling after words that can be heard but not fully grasped, a vortex of language that touches down in many different places across a vast range of experience. When Shakespeare’s words are fixed on the page, they can be read slowly, savored, contemplated, and studied. That Shakespeare wrote for readers makes good sense to many modern theater-goers.
But words, whether in performance or written, fail to bound Shakespeare’s art. After Romeo and Juliet flirt in a dialogue that plays with the outlawed devotional practices of pilgrims and takes the literary form of a sonnet, Romeo kisses Juliet. Then Juliet calls forth laughter after what was surely a passionate kiss, “You kiss by th’book.” At the end of The Tempest, Prospero implores the play-goers, “release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands. / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails….”
Shakespeare’s art is best expressed in events such as Shakespeare in Washington, a DC-wide festival that runs from January to June of 2007. The festival includes theater, music, dance, films, and art exhibits. It leads into the opening of the new Harmon Center for the Arts. Gesture in Shakespeare is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-gesture.
Synetic Theater, a company based in the Washington, DC area, has pioneered wordless performances of Shakespeare’s work. Synetic’s first such production, Hamlet…the rest is silence was a critical and popular success. It will be performed again at the Kennedy Center from March 31 to June 17, 2007 as part of Shakespeare in Washington. Synetic Theater is also contributing to this festival a new wordless production of Macbeth. Synetic’s Macbeth is at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington, Virginia, from January 12 to February 25, 2007. Not only is Synetic’s Macbeth spectacularly pleasing entertainment, it also profoundly explores Shakespearean art.
The witches are major figures in this production. Played brilliantly by Philip Fletcher, Meghan Grady, and Katherine E. Hill, they look like characters one might find dancing at a gothic party in Hell. They crawl out of stage-bottom holes spewing corrupted air and double with a bishop, a rabbi, and an imam in the world-cracking beginning of the play. Macbeth’s first words, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” are realized in the witches reappearing and disappearing throughout the play. They show that Macbeth’s personal problems are also problems of the structure of the world.
This wordless production poignantly communicates Macbeth’s combination of personal and worldly effects. Verbal dialogue ordinarily absorbs much of the weight of revealing persons to each other and the audience. In this production, the actors communicate solely through actions, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes. While words might be imagined to come from somewhere within, gestures, facial expressions, and acts of the eyes are readily understood as material actions like the actions of the rest of the world. Dispensing with words helps to bring together the actors and Macbeth the play-world.
The effect is exquisite in Macbeth’s relationship to Lady Macbeth. George and Martha’s living room death-match in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the cosmic necessity of a Greek tragedy like the Oresteia both play out through Irakli Kavsadze’s and Irina Tiskurishvili’s superb acting. They’re just an ordinary couple who enjoy a drink together, sexually taunt each other, and desperately need each other. But their relational problems lead to the murder of the King of Scotland and murders of many other truly beloved, real persons. In an artful production choice, Macbeth’s victims appear to Macbeth at the end of the play like the Erinyes of Greek tragedy, like a self-curse that Macbeth cannot subsequently dispel.
The wordless production may have enabled some spectacular staging. Ben Cunis as Macduff displays impressive fighting skills in vanquishing Macbeth. That fight could be in a conventional production, or in a Hollywood action film in which the action figure is actually a good actor. Military personnel swarming in chaotic, beautiful patterns about the darkened stage, with flashlight-tipped guns shooting light darts around the intimate, frozen Rosselyn Spectrum theater, probably also could be transferred to a conventional production. In the comic highlight of the evening, Courtney Pauroso in the role of the porter puts on an impressively expressive drunken soldier act. Words from the drunk might detract from the art of that acting.
The hugely successful banquet scene probably depends on wordlessness. Macbeth’s unwilled turning inside out and the Lady’s desperate swerving to maintain the form of the event produces moments in which horror and comedy meet. The silent ghost of Banquo stands in every host’s fear of conversational topics not to be discussed at a convivial evening. Appropriate for a banquet is conventional social conversation. The guests can hardly make social conversation in unison, but they convincingly gesture that way. Towards the end of the debacle, the guests in unison stick their figures over the table, nervously strum them, and emerge from under the table. That is a great moment in wordless Shakespearean play.
The pleasure of attending this play does not depend on theatrical sophistication or any level of prior knowledge of the plot and characters. The Macbeths’ ambition, fears, and their unraveling in carnage are clearly communicated within this production. Shakespeare connoisseurs might hear in their heads specific phrases at certain points in the action, such as Lady Macbeth’s call for sexual negation: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty.” A reviewer who described a three-hour production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as “that rare example of a long night’s journey you only wish could go on longer” surely would enjoy attending this production many times. If you are just looking to see an action movie, or to feel like you do at a horror film, you can get much of those effects from this production, and much more.
The Synethic Theater’s production shows unforgettably the unheroic tragedy of Macbeth. At its center is a pedestrian domestic drama (except, perhaps, for the erotic sadism that the Macbeths prominently display). Macbeth, like a middle-manager scheming to become acting chief executive officer of a major corporation, imagines his ambition to encompass the globe. While Macbeth’s actions are preternaturally ruthless, they also are like the actions of ordinary life: contingent, done without a coherent, well-thought-out plan. For Macbeth, a tragic ordering of the cosmos is a matter of hearsay: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.” The world of Macbeth has no more sure balance than the particularities of an ordinary person’s psyche.
Synetic Theater’s Macbeth is a profound exploration of Shakespeare’s work. It’s a play not to be missed.
Synetic Theater presents Macbeth, January 12 – February 25, 2007, at the Rosslyn Spectrum, Arlington, Virginia. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Performances Thurdays through Saturdays, 8 pm, Sundays, 3 pm. Tickets $30-$35, $5 off for seniors and students, $15 student “rush” tickets; free parking available. See www.synetictheater.org for more information.