Zuidpool’s Macbeth begins with a witches’ song. Six performers, stylishly dressed in black and white, approach a collection of instruments and microphones. A droning harmonium, feedback, sampled loops, and jagged percussion frame Femke Heijens’s ethereal opening lines: “All hail, Macbeth!” After several repetitions, the tempo increases, and the song shifts into a chanted chorus of “Thou shalt be king hereafter!” punctuated by chilling witch cackles.
Framed by the elegantly decaying proscenium of the stage at Thalia Hall, set in front of the graffitied brick of the backstage wall, and drenched in red lighting, the show opens very much like a rock concert. The sometimes-sung, sometimes-spoken language of Shakespeare’s play feels at home in the musical setting. Like a mashup of Macbeth and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the play becomes the story of an ambitious singer/warrior/king confronting the tragic costs of his success.
The production’s compression of the text supports this reading, as all peripheral plot is cut away. Macbeth’s story—his ambition, his isolation, his horror—is elevated here. An audience member unacquainted with Shakespeare’s play certainly couldn’t follow the nuances of the Scottish royal succession, and even Lady Macbeth is reduced to a supporting character. Instead, Macbeth’s experiences, his inner word and external expressions, are heightened through the words, the sounds, and the images of this production. We are offered a visceral experience of his descent into madness.
Theater Zuidpool, a Belgian theater company with a reputation for formal experimentation, offers a version of Macbeth that deliberately blurs the boundaries between theater and rock concert. Their version of the play was adapted by the company and features a score composed by Mauro Pawlowski and Tijs Delbeke, members of the Antwerp rock music scene. The production skillfully balances music and text, but the eclectic music played by the cast and featuring diverse instruments and influences, carries the show.
Jorgen Cassier plays Macbeth as a man too much in his own mind. For the first half of the performance, he is tightly wound, contemplative, and controlled, a spring under tension. He grapples with his ambition, the witches’ prophecy, and his wife’s prodding. The show’s concert concept effectively highlights Macbeth’s isolation as Cassier delivers his lines into a standing microphone directly to the audience. He does not physically engage with the other characters; his voice is mediated by the technology and the space at the front of the stage. His Macbeth is tormented and very alone.
A turning point comes when Wouter “Koen” Van Kaam performs the Porter’s song as a creepy honky-tonk, late-night revelry. Playing a banjo and accompanied by harmonica, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. Van Kaam conjures Tom Waits as he growls a repeated “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there?” The song is played with a mixture of comedy and horror, and it stands out as a light moment in a very dark show. The darkness quickly returns at the end of the song, though, as Heijens voices Macduff’s horrified and enraged discovery of Duncan’s murder and stabs of electric guitar feedback replace the banjo plucking.
After this song, Macbeth’s slow descent into madness becomes a sprint. Cassier’s coiled spring explodes as the play becomes louder, faster, and even more focused on his isolated character. While we wait for the Great Birnam Wood to march against Macbeth, the music relies more heavily on electric guitar and bass, feedback, percussion, and sharp strings, echoes of the Velvet Underground’s early sonic assaults, sludgy contemporary heavy metal, and even thudding Euro dance music as Banquo haunts the banquet. And more lines are shouted, screamed, and shrieked. This is a very loud show. The sound becomes physical. Only when Macbeth dies does the noise quiet and the play end.
By the time Macbeth despairs that life “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” it sounds like a mission statement, or a confession. Zuipool’s Macbeth is undeniably full of sound and fury. The question is, what does it signify? The production gives us a glimpse of the tempest in the title character’s psychology and his soul. And it asks us to experience it, emotionally and physically, through the music. It’s an exhausting experience, but it feels true to Shakespeare’s play. Throughout the show, a red emergency “EXIT” sign hung above a door in the backstage wall, complementing the show’s lighting design and providing commentary on the action. We want Macbeth to find a way out of his tragedy, but for the character, and for the audience, there is no escape.
Aaron Krall is a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches drama and first-year writing, and writes about theater and the city. He holds his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MS in theatre history from Illinois State University and his BA in English from University of St. Francis.