Walking into the Chopin Theatre to attend a performance of Theatre Y’s Macbeth is a bit of a trip. In addition to the Scottish Play, the Chopin is currently home to a production of The Nutcracker, that family-friendly holiday classic. In keeping with The Nutcracker’s holiday theme, the lobby of the Chopin is decorated in ribbons, glitter, and evergreens for Christmas; when I arrived on the Friday after Election Day, the pleasant pop tones of the Jackson 5 Christmas Album floated through the lobby’s festive air. Amid all of this holiday cheer, though, was a prominent display covered in dripping blood to advertise Theatre Y’s Macbeth.
That audience members must walk through a dizzying Christmas scene to enter the dark black-box theater where Macbeth is being staged may amount to nothing more than a scheduling coincidence, but the resulting sense of cognitive dissonance perfectly matches Theatre Y’s disorientating take on Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. The product of a yearlong collaboration between Theatre Y’s independent, mission-driven company and French theater luminary Georges Bigot, this Macbeth imagines Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy as a surreal nightmare. Amplifying the text’s major themes—How do we know what we know? Can we trust our own senses? Are we in charge of our actions, or is control an illusion?—the production offers a deliberately “non-realist” take on the play that fundamentally blurs kitsch and high art, comedy and tragedy, audience and actor.
The play begins, of course, with witches. In this production, these three sisters are truly weird. They add substantially to the sense of unreality, of time out of place. As a spectator, it is difficult to know whether one is meant to laugh at them or cower in fear. They roar and screech and twist their bodies into unnatural shapes, but also dance flirtatiously to a doo-wop tune while displaying their bodies provocatively—for in a nod to Europe’s radical FEMEN activists, these witches appear nearly nude from the waist up. They wear bikini tops that reveal female symbols painted across their torsos (at the post-election performance I attended, the word “nasty” was scrawled across the ribs of one weird sister). Like members of FEMEN, though, these women expose their bodies not to entice but to terrify men. They wear sloppy cut-off jean shorts and long, unkempt hair that they gleefully twist across their chins into beards when Banquo insults their looks.
In Act 1, one of the witches is heavily pregnant, making it all the more shocking when she smears blood across her mouth and body. When the weird sisters reappear in Act 4, she has evidently delivered the pregnancy, signaling the “delivery” of Macbeth’s malevolent ambition into the world. In a horrifying parody of maternity, the witches in this act proceed to use a baby carriage as a cauldron in which they stew such ingredients as the “maw and gulf / Of the ravin’d sea-salt shark,” the “liver of a blaspheming Jew,” and the “finger of a birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab.” They take turns showing their “apparitions” to the increasingly desperate and violent Macbeth in this carriage-cauldron, thrusting pagan statues puppet-like out from under the pram’s bonnet and ventriloquizing them in voices that are alternately silly and scary. The confused combination of Halloween horror-kitsch, aggressive sexuality, twisted violence, and total unpredictability makes these witches all the more frightening—and advances the disorienting atmosphere that infuses the whole play.
The production further amplifies its sense of nightmarish unreality by conscripting the audience into the performance, framing the viewer not only as a participant in the play, but also as responsible for its outcome. While the performers do interact physically and verbally, acting out Macbeth’s political and interpersonal drama according to the dictates of language and plot, they deliver most (indeed, almost all) of their lines in the form of direct address to the audience. Accordingly, we as viewers are treated as complicit in the play’s bloody conspiracies and strange turns. Upon receiving her husband’s letter near the end of Act 1, for instance, Katie Stimpson’s captivating Lady Macbeth stretches luxuriously on her bed and speaks to the audience as if we are the absent Macbeth, staring directly into the eyes of the closest viewers to engender a powerful sense of intimacy. In the staging of the scene, we become her spousal co-conspirator. Yet when Macduff passes Malcolm’s test of loyalty, the prince speaks to the spectators, not his thane; instead of murderous conspirators, the audience become saviors of “good truth and honor.” By the end, it becomes difficult to discern if we spectators have been cast as heroes or enemies. We have, it seems, taken on both—even all—roles at once. Indeed, in the final battle scene, Macbeth and Macduff deliver not only their lines to the audience, but blows as well. Rather than battling each other, the two actors perform their fight choreography side by side, aiming each violent strike and every vengeful word at the crowd of viewers.
The feeling of being responsible for the play’s events but unable to respond—whether by talking back to Lady Macbeth or defending oneself from Macduff and Macbeth’s blows—augments the nightmarish unreality of the play as a whole. After all, if we cannot even be sure what role we play as mere audience members, how can we trust anything we see, hear, or otherwise perceive? By means of this disorienting effect, Theatre Y and Georges Bigot’s production foregrounds one of Macbeth’s most unsettling questions. The play doubts not merely whether we can control the reality we live in, but whether we can identify what is “real” at all. Theatre Y refuses to give a straightforward answer either way, suggesting instead that there may be more power—if less comfort—in the asking.
Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.