WIL Festival 4.1: “Macbeth”

 When I talk to friends and colleagues about original practice (O.P.) performances, their first response is usually a skeptical one. Part of that resistance stems from an assumption that anything trying to return to an early moment or wellspring is a museum artifact: stagnant, static, lacking flexibility and topicality. If you’ve been to an OPS Fest performance, however, you will note that there are no hose, doublets, of ruffs, nor is original pronunciation or any kind of accent used. (I should say accents are used, but typically to draw attention to comic or class distinctions.) So what is “original” about these performances? It’s in the practice.

As any musician will tell you, one practices alone and one rehearses with a group. As is mentioned in the pre-show talk every night, the many-month-ed rehearsal of contemporary theatre was not a feature of the Renaissance. One memorized in private, and then came to do the show. To use another musical simile, OPS Fest capitalizes on the performance technique of a prima vista or “sight-reading”: to perform a piece of art upon first sight. Part of being in a professional orchestra or jazz combo relies on the fact that you have played so much music that your brain can more quickly pick up the patterns and anticipate the shape of a melodic line accurately at relatively first sight. It is a matter of a great deal of practice and exposure to a lot of material quickly. In an O.P. performance, you are seeing actors capitalize on having seen chiasmus, litotes, and other rhetorical figures so many times before that they understand how to deliver them, despite not having seen this particular case in front of them before.

In both advertising and performance strategies, OPS Fest replicates period practices.

In other words, O.P. is about experimenting with how sixteenth and seventeenth century players made theatre, not what. It is about the conservation and rehabilitation of a set of tactics and strategies, rather than the preservation (and possible mummification) of the content of a specific play. Take, for example, the A-frame sidewalk signs you’ll see guiding you to the performance space (pictured above). They use the same graphic art taped to the sign that you will see on posters throughout the neighborhood in the weeks before the show, as well as on the cover of your program. While there were no sidewalks or such signs in the period, there was this exact kind of printing redundancy for advertising. When printers were requested to make a run of copies of a play to sell, they printed a number of extras of the title-pages. These “playbills” were posted around London advertising the playbooks, who lately performed the play, and where you could buy copies. So while the specific design, paper stock, and ink aren’t the same today, the practice of it most certainly is. So how did the WIL Fest staging of its second tragedy, “Macbeth,” fair under these conditions?

Plot

 Scottish lords Macbeth and Banquo meet witches who predict Macbeth will be king and Banquo father of kings. Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to kill King Duncan. Prince Malcolme escapes and Macbeth takes the throne. Macbeth orders Banquo killed. Lady Macbeth goes mad. Malcolme raises an English army that defeats Macbeth. [From the playbill.]

The “way-ard” sisters, from left: Lauren Saville, Kaia Maarja Hillier, Andrew Bray. The two Hecate songs are awesome, using multi-part harmonies and the cauldron as a drum to transform the glowing park to a creepy fen.

Clever Cues

 There were a much fewer cued interruptions by the Prompter (David Bellis-Squires), which I thought initially might be a product of genre. “Macbeth” is the second tragedy of the WIL Festival; the first, “Caesar,” had a great deal of cued and comic interruptions, however. Perhaps it is easy to go for the laugh? The Porter (Brian Allard), Lady Macbeth’s (Shandi Muff) the sleep-walking scene, and at times the Witches (Andrew Bray, Lauren Saville, Kaia Maarja Hillier) provided potential for the darkly comic, but otherwise, this play does not offer many opportunities to slide into humor and then back again. Perhaps tonight Bellis-Squires gave us a study in a different way to interpret the Prompter position: one who maintains tone.

In this play, the Prompter was more of a D.J., rattling a sheet of tin for thunder, slapping thighs to mimic war drums, knocking on the Prompter’s table to replicate knocking at the gate, et cetera. You realize how important the soundscape of the tragedies (and histories) are, moreso than in the comedies or romances, in relation to the plot. In two moments of notable interjection, the result was an interesting clarification rather than a punch line:

PROMPTER: (when Macbeth misses his entrance to return from killing the guards) Macbeth?
LADY MACBETH: I really love him.
PROMPTER: Yeah? How’d you meet?
LADY MACBETH: Well, it was an arranged marriage…(Macbeth enters in a panic)…I’ll tell ya later.

The above example makes the most of a late entrance—something that happened a handful of times due to the difficulty of costume quick-changes rather than poor listening. Below was an intended pause on an already comic moment:

PROMPTER: How exactly did you get this job?
PORTER: Lady Macbeth is my uncle’s cousin.
PROMPTER: That makes perfect sense.

Both improvised moments worked to emphasize the particular quality of the political world in which the Macbeth’s operate: one of nepotism and familial legacy. In so doing, it connects with American anxieties about inherited political power, and helps us question the otherwise sympathetic portrayal of Malcolme (Isabella Buckner) and Donalbaine (Emma Whiteside), the murdered king’s daughters.

From left: Isabella Buckner (Malcolme) and Emma Whiteside (Donalbaine).

Interesting Interruptions

 The doggos were well-behaved. There were no vigorous sports nearby. A handful of bikers quietly passed. No planes seemed to be in a hurry to a destination. The evening was blissfully perfect—so there was little interruption for the performers to capitalize upon. Instead, I thought I might use the opportunity to discuss a few things performing with scrolls makes tricky:

  • Fight scenes. Joel Patrick Durham, in performance and as a choreographer, is bringing the fight work to a new level. It is easily as good as work I see at indoor, heavily rehearsed Shakespeare and certainly has much more convincing speed. (See a recording of his “Romeo and Juliet” fight choreography here.) In an O.P. production, it is tough to wield a weapon in one hand and a scroll in the other. Aside from “batting practice” (the pre-show rehearsal of fights, songs, and dances) and smart choreography, an O.P. fight requires back-pockets. Fights seem rather impossible to do without a quick place to stow your scroll. (The sword-scroll connection is a nice one considering Shakespeare’s family coat-of-arms features such a portmanteau. See below.)
At the bottom right-hand corner, a tattered representation of the Shakespeare family coat-of-arms, discovered in 2016. (Click the image for more information.)
  • Panic. When one is shouting or in a kind of panic, we start to move in circles, looking for a literal and figurative way out of a situation. With a scroll in hand, the habit is to default to stillness, which seems counter to the emotion being vocalized. This is particularly difficult when the panic is a soliloquy, and there is no one to look at, to check with for confirmation or consolation. For example, “is this a dagger I see before me” means looking at a dagger, invisible or otherwise, and not at a scroll. Such moments highlight all of the short-term memorization that goes into O.P. plays and remain relatively unnoticed. To say that First Folio technique is simply a form of staged-reading misses the point.
From left: Tom Mounsey (Macbeth) and Joel Patrick Durham (Macduff).
  • Intimacy. I think about this difficulty a lot, actually. When two characters are expressing newly discovered love or desire and need to make contact—consider Beatrice and Benedicke, Othello and Desdemona, Lord and Lady Macbeth—having scrolls between you puts up some literal and emotional impediments. “Macbeth” offers a great example of how actors get around this problem: mutual fantasizing. When the Macbeths share a scene, they are in debate, trying to convince one another of a plan. By standing side-by-side and imagining a vantage together, mutually looking forward to see (with the mind’s eye) a future set of actions the other desires, you get to have your intimacy and scroll, too. Side-by-side, you can be as close as you want and still have access to the text. In this way, the scrolls challenge actors to consider the range of ways our bodies do and can convey closeness to another.
From left: Tom Mounsey (Macbeth) and Shandi Muff (Lady Macbeth).

Distilling Dramaturgy

Having seen it earlier this year during a group audition, I knew the moment I wanted to discuss in terms of dramaturgy before the show even started tonight: the sleep-walking scene. It is infamous and, as a teacher, difficult: a majority of students use it as evidence to blame Lady Macbeth for everything that happens in the play, quite literally wanting to wash Macbeth clean of all his crimes. (Effects of male privilege much?) In most films, this is the interpretation you usually get: Lady Macbeth, alone and fully unaware of the Doctor (Brian Allard) and Gentlewoman (Lauren Saville) watching her innermost thoughts will out. But that isn’t the scene.

If you trust the text, if you follow its directions, Lady Macbeth is at least semi-aware of her watchers. She quite literally says “give me your hand!” and attempts to drag the Doctor to show him something. Her “eyes are open” but “her senses shut” does not mean than she is not to some degree aware of them. The real hinge, though, is realizing that the text makes much of the fact that Lady Macbeth is carrying a candle:

GENTLEWOMAN: [Enter LADY MACBETH, with a taper]
Lo you, here she comes! This is her very guise;
and, upon my life, fast asleep. Observe her; stand close.
DOCTOR: How came she by that light?
GENTLEWOMAN: Why, it stood by her: she has light by her
continually; ’tis her command.

What follows is the hand washing/rubbing description. In an OPSF production, you must do or find a way to do what others say you are doing, “fitting the word to the action,” as Hamlet would have it. How can one rub ones hands while carrying a candle? The stage nor embedded directions do not suggest a table or other prop in the room. The only logical solution is to put the candle on the ground, and then either “wash” one’s hands over the warm glow, or pretend to burn out the “damn spot” by putting a palm down over the flame. No water. No pacing. By following the words as we have them, Lady Macbeth has room to demonstrate remorse for all that has happened and we are given the opportunity to feel sympathetic for a woman whose identity is wedged between that of amorous companionship and political alliance. An O.P. sigh-reading of the sleep-walking scene frees Lady Macbeth from the museum, from a rote performance history, by using the text to find a new way at a very old scene.

From left: Shandi Muff (Lady Macbeth) and Brian Allard (Doctor).

 Ready for more? Up tomorrow, Saturday, 29 July, at  Willamette Park:

2:00PM “The Taming of the Shrew”
7:00PM “The Comedie of Errors”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.


  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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