In a rueful quip that still rings true, the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt once joked that tragedy, in the classical sense, was no longer possible because today “Creon’s secretaries close Antigone’s books.” The Polish theater company TR Warszawa probably didn’t have Dürrenmatt’s jest in mind as they prepared the adaptation of Macbeth that just finished its regrettably brief New York run. The Poles, who’ve been stomped on by centuries of European war, have a grimmer and weightier sense of irony than you find in bucolic Switzerland, and a wicked playfulness like Dürrenmatt’s tends not to be part of their artistic makeup. But the struggle that Macbeth: 2008, as the company retitled the work, had with its source material was a perfect embodiment of Dürrenmatt’s paradox: Modern bureaucracy, modern technology, the abstractness of modern warfare all kept the human element at a distance. The soul, where tragedy occurs, was only a flickering and intermittent part of the picture.
And once I’ve said that, those who were lucky enough to score the heavily in-demand tickets for Macbeth: 2008 will understand exactly what I didn’t like about it. There was a great deal to admire. Although Grzegorz Jarzyna’s massive production placed heavy reliance on electronics, fancy visuals, and technical effects, they were mostly used with the central purpose of the play in mind. There were some oddities—yes, Hecate, who stood in for Shakespeare’s three witches, was a shaven-headed glam-rock gal with an animal avatar played by a guy in a bunny suit—but this was not a sniggering display of aren’t-we-clever gadgetry and trivializing effects, like the ludicrous Rupert Goold production that recently embarrassed BAM and Broadway.
Unlike Goold, Jarzyna plainly understood what goes on in Macbeth and had made what he believed to be the best possible choices for bringing its events to life in the context of our contemporary world. There was no fussy business with sinks and elevators, no campy allusions to period photographs or Hitchcock movies. Blunt, violent, tight-lipped, and hard, TR Warszawa’s production used its video monitors and explosions and helicopter effects to evoke a life in which those things are normal parts of everyday experience; the show’s challenge was to make Shakespeare’s play resonate within that experience.
The attempt was a brave one, but its failure was a foregone conclusion. Shakespeare wrote in a time when power was vested to a much greater extent in individuals, whose moral choices therefore became matters of grave significance to everyone else. Larger social forces were at work, but not to the degree that they’ve taken over our lives since the Industrial Revolution. Jarzyna’s production, while it often pushed hard to emphasize the moments of decision that led his hard-faced Macbeth (Cezary Kosinski) and his sullenly sexy Lady Macbeth (Aleksandra Konieczna) down the path from murder to civil war and a hellish death, set the action in the context of a vast, high-powered contemporary war machine, of the kind that makes all individual choices—even the biggest—look very small.
Installed in the outdoor arena of the roofless tobacco warehouse across the street from the usual St. Ann’s Warehouse performance space, the setting, by Stephanie Nelson and Agnieszka Zawadowska, was a two-story white factory wall, featuring four large cubicles (two on each level) and several smaller ones. The upper cubicle stage right, which featured a bank of video monitors, started as a command center for “General Duncan,” from where he learned that Macbeth had captured “Cawdor sector.” A much larger screen, in the parallel cubicle stage left, tended to feature giant close-ups of figures engaged in soliloquy, including at various times Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Hecate.
This was just as well, since Jacqueline Sobiszewski’s lighting gave the audience almost zero chance to connect with any expression on human-size faces speaking lines. Darkness, smoke, fog, lights tilted at unhelpful angles or aimed directly in the audience’s eyes—the whole battery of the contemporary theater’s knack for concealment by illumination was on display. It felt like the chaos and sensory overload of wartime; what it never felt like was a poetic drama rooted in human psychology. Ambiguous, elliptical, allusive, and often evasive, Shakespeare’s characters are hard enough to comprehend when you can see them as they speak. Jarzyna kept his people so much out of the light that a lot of the audience’s time was spent hearing voices in the dark, clued to what they were saying only by the supertitles projected between levels on the white wall. They were the most easily readable supertitles I’ve ever encountered; obviously someone involved recognized the difficulties the show posed.
Jarzyna’s treatment of the text was among those difficulties. He not only rewrote and modernized extensively—this was clearly an Asian Scotland, where Macbeth’s “1st Scottish Airborne” pursued a rebel thane named “Ryazan”—but frequently flipped familiar lines from scene to scene and character to character. That so much of Shakespeare’s sense, as well as his dramatic tension, survived both the verbal collaging and the assaultive visual distractions amounts to high praise for Jarzyna’s grasp of the original. A lesser director, juggling so many miscellaneous elements, would have lost sight of Shakespeare altogether. Jarzyna didn’t succeed at welding the play into the reality he created, but at least he made you feel that his creation existed for the play’s sake, and not that he had seized on the play as a handy excuse for the indulgences of his harsh and sometimes eccentric creation.
Jarzyna did not, in my view, stage a production of Macbeth, but his work compelled me to think about what Macbeth, as a play, might mean today, and whether staging it as a meaningful comment on the political life of our time is even possible. In contrast, Goold’s production, like far too many similar notions-shop stagings I’ve seen, from all over Europe and America, merely made me feel the importance of keeping Shakespeare productions short, so that critics can get home early and forget about them. Whether there’s room in our theatrical life for the play Shakespeare actually wrote, in between directors, like Jarzyna, who twist it into something else, and those, like Goold, who drown it in the lumpy gravy of their whims, remains an open question. How responsible can even the guiltiest Macbeth be, when you have an entire global system dedicated to murdering humanity’s sleep?