Understanding Macbeth – International in Conception and Execution

Posted by Kaahon Desk On March 25, 2018

In the context of contemporary theatre practice in West Bengal, Alternative Living Theatre’s Understanding Macbeth is definitely a production that simultaneously compels us to revisit our notion of theatre and links our theatrical practice with international theatrical trends. The reading protocol that I will employ to argue why the above is not a tall claim demands some clarification. Having watched two almost back-to-back shows of the production (at Madhyamgram and at Tala Park), I felt that the performance could be profitably read in the light of Richard Schechner’s seminal essay ‘Six Axioms for Environmental Theatre’. Not just a theorist who launched Performance Studies, Schechner also founded, in 1968, The Performance Group (later, from 1980, The Wooster Group) which is synonymous with and globally acclaimed forits brand of experimental theatre that includes Environmental Theatre. It is not necessary to proclaim that Understanding Macbeth is an example of Environmental Theatre or that the makers had indeed intended it to be such. I believe that reading the performance against Schechner’s essay will help understand it and also accord it the dignified response it deserves.  Needless to say, the performance can be read in other ways too (using say, Rabindranath Tagore’s or Badal Sircar’s or Jerzy Grotowski’s notions about theatre – Schechner, however, has incorporated Grotowski’s ideas within his theories) and I hope some other article will take up that responsibility. I will try to make sense of Understanding Macbeth using all six of Schechner’s axioms, though not in the order in which he has proposed those in his essay and will at times juxtapose more than one axiom.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The 2nd and 3rd of Schechner’s axioms are as follows: “ALL the space is used for the performance; all the space is used for audience” and “THE theatrical event can take place either in a totally transformed space or in ‘found space’ “. Schechner is clearly deeply invested in the question of performance space; he devotes two axioms to discuss space and in other axioms too, the issue of space intrudes. Schechner’s notion of performance space is relevant in the context of Understanding Macbeth because this performance takes place in a space that si similar to that Schechner imagined for Environmental Theatre. What is the nature of this space? First, it is never the proscenium, but either a “transformed” or “found” space. Understanding Macbethuses the second kind of space – the gardens at Madhyamgram or Tala Park are used as they are found. The performance can be mounted in other locations as well where there are trees and bushes – thus, it is an environment dependent production, not a site-specific one. Apart from the expected use of the environment – trees have been used for height or cover, stakes have been driven in to the earth, dust has covered the performers – some things have cropped up as result of using the found space that demand mention.

Schechner writes, “…one negotiates with an environment, engaging in a scenic dialogue with a space”. In both the locations, Understanding Macbeth had to negotiate with and enter into a dramatic dialogue with the specificities of the spaces.  At Madhyamgram, various sounds infiltrated the sonic environment of the performance – the sound of kirtaan conveyed by loudspeakers, the occasional sound of aircrafts, the loud noise of a neighbouring TV and then the angry protests of a male voice when requested the volume to be turned down.  At Tala Park, once the barking of a pack of dogs entered the performance and quite frequently the glare of car headlights became part of the visual scenery. An appealing feature of this kind of theatre is that not everything can be controlled by the performers at all times – some things will be compatible with the performance text and some will not. The performers and the audience will have to continue to make meaning by combining or contrasting elements that are rehearsed and those that suddenly appear – “the given elements of any space-its architecture, textural qualities, acoustics, and so on – are to be explored, not disguised”, writes Schechner. In the godless world after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth fails to utter ‘Amen’ – in this situation the melodic infiltration of the kirtaan adds a note of unplanned irony. Again, the glare of headlights fashioning an uncontrollable play of light and shade seem to mock the human urge to control everything – Macbeth and his wife trying to control their destinies by piling murder upon murder, performers trying to keep their show on a tight leash through rehearsals, people generally trying to be in control of their lives through incessant planning.

The temporal environment chosen for the performance is significant too – from late evening through the next one and a half hours into nightfall (Schechner, by the way, has not said anything about temporal environment in his essay). The evening dusk that deepens into darkness as the performance unfolds becomes a metaphor not only of the sliding of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into darkness, but also the submergence of the performers into the depths of their own minds as they penetrate the unlit interiors of the characters.

In his 1st axiom, “THE theatrical event is a set of related transactions”, Schechner discusses the may-layered exchanges that occur between performers, between members of the audience, between performers and the audience. Exchanges between performers refer not just to the mandatory transactions that must happen during the performance but also and more importantly to the transactions forge during rehearsals; we cannot imagine an Understanding Macbeth without such transactions. The fluent ease marking the scenes in which the split selves of Lady Macbeth kiss each other with deep passion or in which Macbeth and his queen’s washing clean the blood from their bodies transform into lovemaking, bear evidence of trust having developed between performers during workshop rehearsals. The history of the performers’ transactions amongst themselves is to be seen not just in these so called ‘bold’ sequences but also throughout the production and most clearly in this that the chorus never move out of rhythm. Schechner himself is not very certain about the transactions between members of the audience and thus, we will not pursue this point. However, the performer-audience transaction is something that Schechner has returned to in a number of axioms.  The gist of what he says in his essay about this issue may be summarized thus: Environmental Theatre demands such a dynamic participation of the audience such that (1) they will become included within the performance and (2) they will also perform, in a manner of speaking. But it has to be said that in spite of all the opportunities present, Understanding Macbeth does not quite attempt to establish a living, transactional relationship between performers and audience. The chief reason for this is that even though Understanding Macbeth has stepped out of the stage, it has retained some of its systems – the audience watches the performance, sitting in one place, which is what usually happens. The performance fails to convey “…a sense of shared experience” as a result of clear bifurcation of audience space and performance space. The theatre that we commonly experience has the audience sitting fixedly but Schechner talks about audience mobility; this has to do more with politics than aesthetics. Just as in a political demonstration, the bystander will soon be spontaneously drawn into the performance of protest, Environmental Theatre also seeks to pull the audience inside the performance so that ‘…the entire space (becomes) a performingspace; no one is just watching”. I hope the makers of the performance will keep this point in their consideration. That Schechner is seriously concerned with where and how the audience will be positioned and what they will see or not see is proven through his rather radical 4th axiom – “FOCUS is flexible and variable” – where he says it is not necessary that all members of the audience should see or be made to see all of the performance. Actually Schechner is interested in taking Environmental Theatreaway from the conventions of the well-made proscenium theatre and aligning it to the theatre of life of which we cannot perceive the whole of even a small slice. This has happened somewhat in Understanding Macbeth, with its darkness and shadows and the partial cover provided by the trees, but there is enough scope to explore Schechner’s notions of multi-focus and local-focus.

While on the topic of transactions, Schechner has further stressed those “Among production elements; Between production elements and performers; Between production elements and audience”. Moreover, in his 5th axiom he has again taken up production elements – “ALL production elements speak their own language” – maintaining that performers are not in any way more important than the other elements (“…scenery, costume, lighting, sound,make-up…” and audio-visual technology). I will be brief here – Understanding Macbeth is a production in which not only have the elements transacted with each other, they have all spoken their own languages. Schechner has repeatedly said “…technicians should be a creative part of the performance”; though not very frequent in our practice of theatre, this has happened in Understanding Macbeth.

In his 6th and last axiom Schechner has given that “THE text need be neither the starting point nor the goal of a production. There may be no verbal text at all”. It is not that Understanding Macbeth is without a text. However, it is indeed quite extraordinary that what Schechner says about the text quoting two authorities (John Cage and Grotowski) is applicable almost entirely in the case of Understanding Macbeth. While Grotowski talks about altering the text to create a mintage that would allow the performers to “confront” the text, Cage talks about treating the text as amendable “material”. Here as text we have five writers presenting their readings of Macbeth; the text does not narrativize the life histories of Macbeth and his queen, but teases out the issues of ambition, greed, lust, masculinity, impotence that make up the thematic core of the classic text. Thus, to borrow Schechner’s way of putting it, Understanding Macbeth does not do Macbeth, it does with it. And what emerges out of this doing to get fixed in our memories is the process of the performance going beyond the text; put in other words, the text becomes one of the production elements. Nowhere is this more clear than in the presentations of some of the iconic scenes of Macbeth, such as the dagger scene or the one in which the Birnam Forest moves up to Macbeth, where performance eclipses text. Though these scenes deserve thorough analysis, I will restrict myself to briefly commenting on just one. Macbeth produces his own jungle complete with primitiveviolence; he carries in his mind the jungle of dark evil – the manner in which this notion is performed with powerful brushstrokes splashing a piece of white cloth with green, black and red (with percussions drumming up a suggestion of claustrophobic evil and the lights making darkness visible) is international in its conceptual orientation and of international standard in its brilliance of execution.

Instead of taking names of individuals associated with this production, I will profusely commend Alternative Living Theatre for gifting us Understanding Macbeth. This performance makes it possible to maintain faith in Bengali theatre practice. Those who have read this piece and have not watched the performance should not consider Understanding Macbeth a dry, intellectual exercise – it is a living, exciting performance that has touched the heart of Environmental Theatre and will touch you, once you watch it.

Dipankar Sen
A student of theatre as an art practice, he is definitely a slow (but hopefully, steady) learner. He is a father, a husband and a teacher of English literature in the West Bengal Education Service. His other interests include literature in translation and detective fiction.

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