By Matt Trueman
Imagine if you could bathe in Macbeth. Or cut it into lines and snort it. What about painting your house Macbeth? ‘OK,’ you’re probably thinking, ‘this time he’s actually lost it. What is he on about?’
What I’m trying to say is that Song of the Goat’s 75-minute Macbeth is about as non-natural—by which I mean ineffable, rather than anti-Stanislavskian—as any piece of theatre I’ve seen. The Polish company treats Shakespeare’s text not in terms of its mechanics and motivations, but as an orchestral score. Using Grotowskian techniques of rhythmic movement and Corsican chanting, they translate it into something uniquely theatrical, something that chimes rather than planting ideas. The result is the essence of Macbeth.
The words are treated sensorily. They carry meaning not through the concepts they signify, but on account of their tonal properties. Much of the text is chanted or sung chorally, sometimes delivered in layered whispers such that the words themselves become obscure and invisible. The same is true of the physicality. The eight performers hop and bounce around the stage like kabaddi professionals, landing with measured weight. They slice the air with wooden staffs swung or thrown between one another; here, slow and gentle; there, fizzing and fierce.
This is a Macbeth you feel before you follow it. You absorb it without consciously registering what’s going on behind the performance, what it’s signifying. That expressionism makes this Macbeth unfamiliar and counter-intuitive, quite often surprisingly so: you get a sense of the whole without being able to separate its constituent parts. It’s as if the entirety of Shakespeare’s play were contained in the dazzle of a single flashbulb. It’s the theatrical equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Three-Course Dinner Chewing Gum.
Of course, such an approach comes with heavy casualties. Often the plot is difficult to follow and one finds oneself constantly searching for familiar sections to serve as anchors. At times, it feels like the edited highlights: those passages that have come to represent the play—‘Is this a dagger,’ ‘Out, out damn spot,’ Banquo’s assassination and visitation etc—are delivered without the conjunctive momentum. In fact, there are moments when one struggles to decipher what’s going on at all. It took me a good half-hour to locate Banquo amongst the cast, identically dressed in long, starched skirts.
That has the knock on effect that, somewhat dispiritingly, this is not a Macbeth that can offer an interpretation. At this level of enquiry—rational, textual, analytical—one learns nothing new about the play. More than that, one loses the sense of the impending and inevitable, the dark heart of ambition that drives the play and the accompanying guilt.
But to bemoan such losses is akin to knocking a Macbeth for revealing nothing about Hamlet. Instead, Song of the Goat converts Shakespeare’s play into a whole new format; they present it anew by allowing us to experience it in a completely alternate mode and manner. It’s almost synaesthetic. And in those terms, it is dazzling. The combination of its movement and sound (beneath the chanting is a constant accompaniment on the Korean kayagum, twanging and pealing) draw you inside the play, rather than observing externally. The overall effect is like a snake charmer: its kinesthetic properties go to work on you and its not long before you’re moving along, following each swish with a turn of your head or swaying and spiraling softly in your seat. Like two atonal guitar strings that eventually synchronize, Song of the Goat tune you in to the rhythms, timbres, textures, and pitches of Shakespeare’s text.
Words seem to ripple into movement, as if the performers’ bodies are led by their lungs. You breathe along, inhaling Macbeth such that it gets inside you and lingers.
At times, such as when the witches deliver airy, staccato incantations, or in the warbled wailings of Lady Macbeth (a frayed and pallid Anna Zubrzycki), it is exceptionally haunting. Elsewhere, it is more earthy and visceral—achieved without any nod to viscera, actual or represented. Gabriel Gawin’s Macbeth is a grounded, solid presence, often oddly graceful in his masculinity, despite never making much of a villain out of the man. Banquo’s assassination, in which he is lashed around the stage by staffs, is stinging and invasive. He flops from one murderer to the next like a rag-doll in heavy winds or tumultuous waves, spinning and flailing. By the time Burnham Wood ups its sticks, the battle is a finely choreographed set of swishes and jumps that leaves you hanging on the edge of a breath. The various staffs come within a whisker of the tumbling performers, but never connect.
That airiness, the delicacy, and precision with which Song of the Goat work lends their Macbeth a beauty—one that grips your senses from all directions and holds you in suspense. Not the suspense of a well-told tale, but a physical, felt suspense. It’s a beauty that, without quite knowing why, drew silent tears from my eyes. They had spotted something, even if I couldn’t tell you quite what.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/