“It’s just coincidence,” Philip Kerr says of the superstitions that swirl around Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
“I don’t personally believe that spirits are throwing rocks at us or anything.”
Kerr, professor of theater and drama in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, will direct the Department of Theatre & Drama’s performance of “Macbeth” this weekend at the Power Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s well known in showbiz that “Macbeth” is cursed. In one 17th-century production, the actor playing King Duncan was allegedly murdered when a real dagger was used instead of a fake one for his stabbing scene. At least 25 people died in the Astor Place Riot of 1849, which was spurred by a rivalry between two well-known actors both playing — who else — Macbeth. And in a 1953 production starring Charlton Heston, a sudden gust of wind blew flames from a realistically staged battle scene onto Heston. He was severely burned — as it turned out, someone had soaked his tights in kerosene.
Kerr has been lucky so far in this production, save a few bouts of swine flu in the cast — still, he insists, “touch wood and please don’t say anything.”
When Kerr played the Scottish lord Ross in the 1988 Broadway revival of “Macbeth,” it was a different story. That show was plagued by changes in directors, sets and actors, and lead Christopher Plummer (known for his leading roles in movies like “The Sound of Music” and “Up”) was injured multiple times in multiple accidents.
There are several theories behind the “Macbeth” curse. Some say Shakespeare lifted some of his lines for the “Macbeth” witches from actual spells, causing real-life witches to jinx the play. Others point to King James, the ruler for whom Shakespeare allegedly wrote “Macbeth,” who believed in witchcraft and even wrote a book on demonology.
Even saying the name “Macbeth” aloud in the theater, some say, can lead to grave misfortune. And so it is often referred to as “The Scottish Play,” and its lead actors as “Mac-ers.”
Depending on the theater company, there are certain cleansing rituals for those who accidentally say “Macbeth” — including one in which the culprit turns around three times, spits over his or her left shoulder and recites a line from another work of Shakespeare. In some circles, one just has to swear. But safe within the walls of the Power Center, Kerr isn’t afraid to let his actors say the name.
“(The character of Macbeth) is intriguing, but not totally sympathetic, and that may contribute to (the superstitions),” Kerr added. Shakespearean tragedies tend to have flawed leads — Hamlet and Romeo come to mind — but Macbeth is different, dark and at times downright unlikeable.
“I believe that Macbeth is essentially a good man whose mind is poisoned by the witches and corrupted further by his wife,” counters Music, Theatre & Dance senior Thomas Wolfson.
Wolfson might be a little biased — he plays Macbeth — but he doesn’t see the character as “a moustache-twisting villain.” Wolfson will indeed sport a moustache for the performance, however.
“Macbeth” is Shakespeare’s shortest and most violent tragedy. It deals with dirty, primal ambition — the power couple at its center consists of a man who considers murdering his king but doesn’t have the guts and the heartless wife who emasculates him so much that he finally commits the crime.
After three witches deliver a prophecy that he will become king, the Scottish general Macbeth — upon his wife’s urging and taunting — murders King Duncan and assumes the throne. But the couple’s bloody power trip soon threatens the Macbeths’ own sanity and lives.
Though the casualty count is lower than that of “Hamlet,” damaged psyches and selfish motives lie at the heart of “The Scottish Play.”
“Macbeth” in Desperate Times
Kerr’s investigation into the play’s themes of “disease and wounds and blood and light and dark” led him to set the play not in 11th century Scotland as Shakespeare did, or in 1606 England where it was written, but rather in a World War I-era field hospital.
Though most productions of “Macbeth” use a vaguely “Braveheart”-like medieval Scottish setting, shifting the play’s time and place isn’t rare. Kerr points to a Canadian production last summer that set the play in revolutionary South America.
The landscape of Kerr’s “Macbeth” was inspired by an actual World War I-era picture of a bombed-out church that had been converted into a field hospital. Kerr and the design crew took pains to create a set and costumes that would be historically accurate but not so specific as to take away from the play’s universal themes. More than anything, the setting is a metaphor for the characters’ psychological damage.
“It might have been a church, but now it’s a hospital,” Kerr says of his setting, “So there’s a sense of transformation and decay, and yet curative hope, going on all at once.”
“Dingy” and “decrepit” are two words costume director Rachel Jahn, a senior design and production major in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, used to describe Kerr’s rendering. The set and costume designs reflect a colorless, broken world. The attention to detail is impressive, from the nostalgic black-and-white family photos taped above a cot to the eerie brown gas masks that Jahn constructed from authentic period-era masks and store-bought canvas.
“We wanted there to be a sense of history, and there’s a lot of things that are happening here … that you don’t necessarily see, that you don’t necessarily know about,” Jahn says.
Mystery and mysticism, the things “you don’t see,” are essential to the design of Macbeth. The “Macbeth” witches (of “Double, double toil and trouble” fame) appear twice in the play to prophesize, as well as inspire, the action.
For this production, Kerr chose to portray the witches as nuns. According to Jahn, this was the most controversial costume decision. To lessen the controversy, the witches lower a black veil that rids them of their nun-ness and turns them into a “non-entity” before they utter their lines.
“We found all these different ‘roles’ for everyone to play inside this world,” Jahn explains.
Her costumes paint Macbeth as a fighter pilot, wife Lady Macbeth as a nurse and enemy Macduff as a military surgeon.
Jahn spent her summer vacation mining Google Images and library books for historical tidbits to use in the production — for instance, the early 20th century was full of facial hair, so many of the male actors have grown beards for the performance.
Obviously, blood is a major component of “Macbeth” as well. While the exact recipe is a secret of the trade, Jahn mentioned Hershey’s syrup as a possible ingredient. The blood in “Macbeth” is mostly what Jahn describes as “old blood,” dripping from daggers or red-stained hands. Even though Jahn calls her blood more “minimal” and “graphic” than the blood in some other productions, it’s still a concern when the wardrobe crew does laundry between shows.
The set remains the same throughout all five acts of “Macbeth.” Institutional gray cots are lined up in a room that looks grungy but seems to retain some former glory with artful pillars and arches arranged in the background.
Set designer Vincent Mountain, associate professor of design in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, brings out the humanity in “Macbeth” in the little things: bland grey clothes hanging on a line, crutches haphazardly strewn beside a hospital bed.
But none of Mountain’s set designs are present in the production’s minute-long trailer, which readers can find on YouTube. Minimalist and abstract, it interposes World War I photo footage with a scene of Lady Macbeth symbolically baptizing her husband in a tub of blood. He emerges brutal and forceful, a transformation that occurs near the beginning of “Macbeth.”
An Ensemble Production
Wolfson’s Macbeth will be joined by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Anna Robinson as Lady Macbeth, along with a supporting cast made up of mostly upperclassmen, with one first-year Music, Theatre & Dance student, David Kaplinsky, who plays James.
“The director trusts you to be self-motivated … and allows you the space to try new things in the rehearsal process,” Kaplinsky says of his first college-level performance.
When the production was found to be lacking in “males of size,” Kerr found two Michigan football players to round out the cast. Both in the College of Literate, Science and the Arts, fifth-year senior and starting offensive lineman David Moosman and senior quarterback David Cone portray soldiers. Also unaffiliated with the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, a 12-year-old Tappan Middle School student will play Little Macduff.
About 60 students auditioned for the 29 roles in Macbeth, with preference given to acting BFA undergraduates. These BFA students are required to audition for all mainstage productions and must fulfill a “studio credit” requirement by performing onstage. This can be accomplished through School of Music, Theatre & Dance productions like “Macbeth,” or in student-run shows with Basement Arts or other organizations.
Throughout the school year, the Department of Theatre & Drama produces five mainstage plays. Shakespearean works are more rare, though, the last one being “As You Like It,” performed last spring.
One major difficulty in performing Shakespeare is the language. Delivering Shakespearean lines is comparable to performing music, and actors have to find the right cadence to make lines resonate that might sound stilted to modern-day speakers of English.
Kerr’s actors don’t use British accents, which he thinks would narrow down the play by specifying the time and place of the action. Instead, they focus on clear diction to bring the lines across to audiences.
Making Shakespeare clear is no easy task — scores of high school English classes have spent hours puzzled over lines like “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (Act III, Scene II). But in a live production, an actor’s delivery and facial expression can make a big difference in the way lines are interpreted.
Sometimes, directors with a more modern take on Shakespeare will change the script to incorporate contemporary language, but the only changes Kerr has made to the original script are a few cuts to make the action flow more quickly.
“Shakespeare wrote scenes, not plays,” Kerr theorizes.
Kerr sees as much of a psychological study as a linear progression in “Macbeth.” What makes “Macbeth” stand out are the snapshots of a fanatical Macbeth ranting to a ghost as he hosts a dinner party or a guilty Lady Macbeth trying and trying to wash the blood off her hands.
And it’s these psychological details that will be emphasized in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s production to bring across central themes of ambition, fate and the supernatural.
Large themes require a large space, and so, of this year’s mainstage plays, “Macbeth” is the only one to take the stage at the 1,380-seat Power Center for the Performing Arts.
“To put something on in the Power Center, it needs to have size,” Kerr explains, “and a Shakespeare play … usually has size to it — it’s dealing with big ideas, big themes.”
But there’s still room for the audience to add its own interpretation to Kerr’s sparse presentation of a bleak world.
“I think that’s one of the things theater can do … (it’s) not spelling out all the details for the audience, you have to work too. It’s a little different from watching a film on a small screen in your living room,” Kerr says.
At only $9 for students, it’s not much of a price difference, either. Provided no sudden stroke of bad luck hits before 7:30 p.m. tonight, the University’s production of “Macbeth” promises a journey to a traumatized world where “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”