To Be a Shakespeare Purist, Or Not To Be…

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I experienced the show Sleep No More last week. I really don’t know what to make of it, because although it was interesting and provocative, it lacked an anchor. There was nothing to hold onto – no real heart.

Well, that’s not true. There was the passionate connection of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Present despite the lack of dialogue. But what is Macbeth without dialogue? A story up for grabs. (This might be acceptable if it were not one of the greatest stories of all time.)

Even if I let go of my grasp on the obvious: that the beauty of Shakespeare lies in his words…Even if I accept that a metaphorical, ethereal quality is possible in silent (except for some shrieking) scenes: the question remains – why? Why do that to a masterpiece? I expected it to be pared down, but not stripped naked. (More on naked to come.)

We see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggling with and against each other, but we really can’t grasp why. Then both of them run off and do some separate writhing acrobatics. I just can’t get a sense of story from body language alone (maybe this is why I avoid the ballet.)  There are some letters from Macbeth strewn around – I think it was the same one in several copies for some reason, and I believe it was the note he sent her after seeing the witches – but the handwriting was so messy that I can’t be sure. Excuse me, but if these letters are our only prompts, I think we should be able to read them!!!

But I skipped all that happened before we finally encountered Macbeth and his lady (which was something that happened by chance, I might add.) They start you off in an elevator, giving you a creepy mask to wear and instructing you not to speak. They say that we are supposed to be anonymous, which is fine – but I wish the cast wasn’t so anonymous!!!

They let you off onto one of the five (I think) floors and instruct you to explore. There are many interesting things that have nothing to do with Macbeth: a room with a Rosemary’s Baby type of perambulator in its center (devoid of incubus, thankfully), a psychiatric ward including a padded room, a private detective’s office, a taxidermist’s varied collection on display. These are attention-grabbing, but disappointing because there’s no real connection with the promise of the show. Not only is the metaphor too stretched, it is mixed and inconsistent!

So you wander around in semi-darkness and the occasional requisite creepy music, and you look for something to let you know WTF is going on. Then there is a forest (Great Birnam wood, I presume) and a little hut where if you strain you eyes through the cracks you can see a French-maid type of gal preparing coffee. Is this supposed to be profound?

I could accept all this as an exploration into the psyche if not for the claim that Macbeth is at its center. There is too little of Macbeth incorporated, and the scenes which are from Macbeth are condensed in a way Shakespeare wouldn’t (couldn’t!) have liked. Why? Because it’s impossible to pry his story out of this thing!!

I identified Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan. Still not sure who the other players were supposed to be. I think perhaps the king’s sons were two of them – and maybe his guards. There was a pregnant woman who dances at the ball with everyone, and then goes mad in the hotel lobby upstairs (yes – the Macbeths reside in a New York hotel in 1939 – why wouldn’t they?) and I really don’t get who she was. Seemed like Ophelia except for the pregnancy and the fact that this wasn’t Hamlet. My closest guess is Lady MacDuff. (Still not right…but who else could she be?)

I really don’t have a problem with the change in setting. It’s cool to take a story and re-set it in a different time. (Hey, I wrote Melt, a metaphorical interpretation of The Wizard of Oz.) But holy smokes – it’s impossible to get one’s bearings in this play. Plus, they don’t show some very key points – and the character Macbeth’s end is different as well. I would think that’s paramount. I don’t think they show what happens to Lady Macbeth, though I might have missed it. (She dies off-stage in Macbeth, but we are informed of her demise.)

The murder was exciting in a voyerish way (they don’t show it in the original play) and Macbeth dripping with blood was quite dramatic. He gets naked and plunges into a bathtub in the center of a room, so there is that shock (and Lady Macbeth bears her chest as well.) But I say: “Keep your clothes on and speak!!!”(They should have called this Speak No More. At least that would’ve been honest.)

In the end analysis, I’m not a devout purist. I took my kids to a Macbeth puppet show when they were young, and it was fabulous – but the puppets spoke. I think speech might be my line in the sand. Call me old-fashioned.

I don’t mind interpretations. Once I saw a production of Hamlet with five people in black business suits walking around reciting Hamlet’s lines in unison, Gertrude in a dominatrix outfit and Polonious dressed like a used car salesman. It was off-putting. But on reflection, it worked. (And it was memorable.)

I will remember Sleep No More, but I don’t think it’s in the manner its producers intended. Or maybe they just wanted to use the familiarity of Macbeth to lure us in.

And what if someone had no prior knowledge of Macbeth when they saw this. They would leave still lacking knowledge – but perhaps feeling more entertained than I was. Definitely more satisfied. Oh, sweet ignorance…

Macbeth is a highly psychological, interior play. That’s one of the reasons I adore it. And, perhaps, liberties may be taken to broaden our interpretation. But there is no broadening here, or interpretation. There is only frustration. I think it would’ve been an interesting concept to set up this hotel in a dark, suggestive, provocative way for use to explore without evoking Shakespeare. As it stands, Sleep No More hath murdered Macbeth. Let us experiment with a different story: like Twilight. Herein lies a tale that could only be improved. Shall we call it Whine No More?

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