The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0341 Friday, 17 August 2012
Date: August 16, 2012 1:21:24 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: Aesthetic and Anesthetic
Steve Urkowitz’s comments on anaesthetic Macbeth hit a nerve. I recently went, as a reviewer, to see Punchdrunk’s titanic flagship US production “Sleep No More”: an 100 room immersive theatre installation that essentially offers audience a non-linear Macbeth with elements from Hitchcock, most notably a stridently controlling Bernard Hermann-drenched score.
Something that this sprawling, nigh unreviewable work does do is to produce something like the criterion of “educated emotional evocation” that Urkowitz calls for. So, a provocative review in Shakespeare Bulletin by Kevin Ewert eschews the usual review format to reflect on the reviewer’s experience of a single moment of intimate contact with one of the actors. Certainly reviewing or viewing a show like this forces us to answer that question: “tell me if you felt along with your understanding. And tell me how that feeling connects with other emotions you enjoy intensely.”
But on the whole I was struck precisely by how “immersive theatre” seems to have become anaesthetic in the hands of its great proponents. Yes, it breaks a barrier, and allows audiences to be grabbed, up close and personal. Yet “one on one” moments in this expensive, well-publicized show, like the one Ewet describes, have become like bonus scenes in a computer game, known and sought out by audience members wanting to “score” the maximum experience. What could be less affecting than this dull, mechanical euphoria: somewhere between computer gaming and online shopping—with a hint of surfing for porn. I wonder, is theatre not equally or more immersive when an actor playing the porter looks into the crowd and addresses members of the audience? Punchdrunk’s “mind-blowing” Macbeth seems to forget this. Even dance companies working behind a proscenium arch do more to interrogate and destabilize the boundary between audience and actor than Punchdrunk’s “one on one” immersive theatre technique, where the overriding emotions dealt with are the viewer’s infantile demand for attention, touch, and recognition.
Punchdrunk’s Macbeth is a machine. And it’s Macbeth is a machine, incapable of showing any development or engaging any emotional response. I hope I won’t be spoiling the show for anyone if I let on that the climax come when Macbeth puts his head in a noose—an odd form of emotional pleading. Overall, it struck me that a show that purports to be all about active response seems to render both its audience and its protagonist, conveniently passive, and dispassionate. Macbeth’s nobles usher Macbeth to his death; the ushers usher us back into the bar. End of show.
This also touches on Urkowitz’s second point, about directorial interventions / inventions. I’d noticed this as a particularly rife problem in South African Shakespeare and had taken it as a symptom of director designer’s theatre, that doesn’t trust either actors or audiences, though the same thing crops up all over, especially when working with “dark” materials like Macbeth. Directors like to colonize silences and use dumbshow to rewrite the play, often to make the texture more generically even. So Adam can die poignantly at the end of the As You Like It Act II, Richard III and other villains can stab any number of messengers and, yes, Macbeth can stab the doctor—because he (because we) can. In the most striking example I’ve seen, a production of King Lear in Cape Town, on the exit from the heath, Edgar walked over and strangled the clown. Why? I put this down to directorial interference. But when I put this to the director, I was told that it had been Edgar’s idea. When the director, Guy de Lancey, asked the actor why he did it, he replied that he wanted to get the trousers. Actors have also learned to replace emotions with ideas. I don’t think they learned this from Shakespeare.