Music and singing play an active role in the story. They no longer merely accompany the dramatic action, but become part of it. The tension between sung word and spoken word has to do with what Dominique Pauwels describes as a ‘virus’: a virus infiltrates Macbeth’s consciousness, poisons his brain and everything around him. MCBTH begins as a stage play, but as the protagonist acquires more power and commits more murders, the theatre medium begins to fragment and another medium creeps in: singing and music. The witches, played by three female singers, become increasingly involved in the action, appearing at times when they are not on stage in Shakespeare’s play.
Along with Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. If Hamlet is the tragedy of deliberation and indecisiveness, King Lear that of overconfidence and Othello that of jealousy, then Macbeth is the tragedy of ambition. If only things were so simple! Shakespeare’s tragedies are too rich to be the subject of just one passion. The four tragedies bear the name of their leading character. And rightly so in the case of Macbeth, not least because of his many monologues. We see the world mainly through his eyes. In that sense Macbeth is perhaps more a tragedy of the imagination than of ambition. What the witches do first and foremost is fire Macbeth’s imagination. That imagination is further fed by Lady Macbeth and becomes the engine of his actions, but also the cause of his torment. It almost seems to lead a life of its own. Though all too aware of the consequences of his deeds, Macbeth does not manage to resist committing them. He knows that as well as the deed there is also the (guilty) consciousness of that deed and that he will be pursued by his conscience.
Guy Cassiers’ and Dominique Pauwels’ MCBTH takes that theme to an extreme. The text was shortened and the number of characters reduced to five: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Banquo and Macduff. With fewer characters than that it would be difficult to tell the story. As a result of this reduction, this scrapping of all the ‘superfluous’ – with apologies to the Master – characters, Macbeth becomes even more the focus of the play. Like a seismograph the adaptation follows the development of Macbeth’s conscience from the moment the witches plant the seed in his imagination. We tried to make this clear with a pared down title: MCBTH.
That dramatic purge is however juxtaposed with an accumulation of theatrical layers. Those familiar with Guy Cassiers’ productions will know that projections play an important role. Visual technology is used to externalize the inner world of the characters. It is no coincidence that in many productions the enlarged head of a character is projected onto the back wall (Proust, Sunken Red, Under the Volcano, Dark Heart). What happens on stage is actually what is happening in the head of the protagonists. Yet something else happens in MCBTH too: not only is the back wall a projection screen, but the bodies – or rather the actors’ costumes – serve as a projection screen too. The fact that the bodies are ‘taken over by’ projections has to do with the dramaturgy of the production. The projections evoke both images of nature and of a technological world. The characters seem to have lost their way between their primitive, bestial passions on the one hand and their cyborg doubles on the other. The music and the singing play a central role in this.
The development of Macbeth – his growing bloodlust, the internalization of his moral struggle, his enforced isolation, the loosening of his grip on reality, the hell of his imagination – is interpreted through sung passages. Macbeth is so caught up in his power struggle that he loses sight of the world around him.
The singing and the music symbolize that fading, blurred world. The singing witches represent the constant shift between reality and hallucination, between a rational and controllable world on the one hand, and, on the other, a world where the darkness of (inner and outer) violence reigns. The spoken word is ‘haunted’ by the sung word. Music and singing reveal a dimension that is hidden and suppressed in speech.
The five actors are joined by six musicians and three female singers. While the story itself is reduced to its essence, it is told in a ‘baroque’ manner: with projected images, singing and live music. And not forgetting, of course, Tim Van Steenbergen’s costumes.
All this impacts on the rehearsal process. A whole month was spent rehearsing without the singers and the musicians, though with computer files of the music composed by Dominique Pauwels. The addition of the voices of the three singers and later of the instruments played live is nothing short of a ‘shock’. Singing and music usurp the spoken word. The real challenge of the rehearsal period when all the participants are present is to strike the right balance. Sung and spoken word have different rhythms and produce different experiences of time. As long as the two are placed side by side there is no problem, for the singing becomes a sort of commentary on the word. And that was after all the purpose of the chorus in Greek tragedy: to describe and comment upon the action. Cassiers & Pauwels did the same in Blood & Roses. With MCBTH, however, and this is the big change, spoken and sung word intermingle, presenting a far greater challenge for both the singers and the actors. A balance has to be struck between two different rhythms, while at the same time the conflict between singing and speaking must also be clear because that is what the production is all about: the singing eating away at the speaking like a virus, like a cancer which attacks Macbeth’s body and his world from within. The music and the singing as the metaphor for the moral evil that slowly takes control of a person.