What Would Shakespeare Say About the New Production of Macbeth?

On the innovative Tbilisi production that takes me down my own Macbeth memory lane.


Tornike Gogrichiani‏
Tornike Gogrichiani‏ as Macbeth in the Tbilisi theater production. Goram Tsivakashvili

The Tbilisi Music and Drama State Theater's fascinating, innovative and surprising production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," performed only twice at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem last week, brought me back to this play. And I'm at an age when it's permitted to recall when I first encountered some Shakespeare play and what it did to me (as far as I know, it didn't affect him. But I didn't ask the witches ).

We - I and my 19 friends, boys only - in the scientific-electronic track in Tichon Heh High School in Tel Aviv studied "Macbeth" in 1967 under the guidance of Ms. Aliza Schechter. At one of our class reunions, held quite recently, it became clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that she had left the strongest impression on us, one which hasn't dimmed to this day. At the time, she was a young, beautiful and impressive woman who did a good job teaching "Macbeth," including lines that were not easy to teach high school juniors: "Come you spirits, who tend on mortal thoughts,/ Unsex me here."

One of us, who had recordings of Shakespearean plays at home, quoted kilometers of Shakespeare by heart, so I had no chance at making any impression on the teacher. But I volunteered to bring her tea from the teachers' room during the break, so she could smoke her cigarette (those were different times ). Thanks to her I understood that it was possible to read Shakespeare in English - to understand, enjoy and be moved. And "Macbeth" was the beginning.

One of the problems of the "Scottish play" (as it is called on the English stage, because mentioning its name brings bad luck ) is that it's an excellent, familiar and popular play. Its witches provide an opportunity for a variety of theatrical effects (I've seen it done on motorcycles, on the stilts of circus acrobats ), lighting effects, rivers of blood. The plot is swift, and most of the interest usually centers around the witches, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: who is the initiator and who the follower, what their relationship is and all that. All of the other characters are actually extras in the major drama of the bloody race for the crown and what follows.

Repressed memories

One of the nice things about the production from Tbilisi, which was staged in the Georgian language, was that the Hebrew translation by Dori Parnes was shown at the sides of the stage (it is available in its entirety, on his Web site shakespeare.co.il ).

The problem was that we learned "Macbeth" in high school in English, but on stage it was usually performed in Hebrew. The first time came at the Habima National Theater in 1954, when Aharon Meskin finally got to play a Shakespearean character without sharing the role with Shimon Finkel. Hanna Rovina portrayed Lady Macbeth, and it was translated by Ephraim Broide (that translation is still in print ). I couldn't attend that production, however, because I was four years old and living in Poland.

I did see the other productions of "Macbeth" on the Israeli stage, and I must admit that either my memories of them are dim, or I repressed them. In 1989 the Cameri Theater performed the play under the direction of Miki Gurevich, with Yosef Carmon as Macbeth and Gita Munte as Lady Macbeth. That was also the first time Meir Wieseltier's translation was performed. It was later used in the Habima production in 1994 (directed by Toby Robertson, with Asher Tzarfati and Liora Rivlin in the leading roles ), and Rina Yerushalmi in the Haifa Theater a few years after (with Roberto Pollak as Macbeth ). That translation was also used by Lilach Dekel-Avneri in the fringe production put on by the Tmuna Theater, in which Karni Postel with her cello portrayed the witches.

So this is the opportunity to praise Parnes' translation, which was used by the Georgian production - although I'm not enthusiastic about the fact that for reasons of rhyme and meter he switched "foul is fair" with "fair is foul," because after all, what turns into what first is of importance. But generally speaking, his translation is clear and fluent, and on his Web site he also provides links that explain his choices and the difficulties of translation. He remarks that one of the many emphases repeated in the play is on "strange things."

Differing messages

One of the strange and unfamiliar things in this production, directed by David Doiashvili, is the portrayal of the character of Duncan, the murdered king. As played by Alexander Beglishvili, Duncan is a dirty old man, a cruel and blood thirsty (literally ) tyrant and a clown, who keeps fooling his servants into thinking he is about to collapse, and who provokes quarrels among them, humiliates them and deceives his two sons Malcolm and Donalbain. None of that is found in the text. It is done surrounding a text with different messages: Everyone sees a horrifying reality, and keeps up an appearance of a proper and enlightened government.

This contradicts the text of the play. In Act I, Scene 7 (part of which is omitted of course in this production ) Macbeth begins to hesitate as to whether he can kill the king, although that is his fate - especially since "Besides, this Duncan, Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office."

A key scene of the play becomes the last one in Act IV, in which MacDuff (whose wife and child Macbeth murdered ) flees to England where he meets Malcolm, Duncan's son, to consult with him as to how to destroy the despotic Macbeth. They are both suspicious of one another.

Malcolm, in order to test MacDuff (who after all fled and abandoned his family ) presents himself as someone who will be a worse despot than Macbeth. MacDuff is ready for any sacrifice as long as Macbeth is brought down, but even he has his limits. In the end he is horrified and says that Malcolm's father was a virtuous ruler. At this point Malcolm explains that his behavior was a pretense, and they both mourn the fate of their country, ruled by tyrants. First MacDuff: "Bleed, bleed, poor country! Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure, For goodness dare not check thee; wear thou thy wrongs, The title is affeer'd!" Followed by Malcolm: "I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash Is added to her wounds."

The inevitable conclusion is that what is more destructive than anything else is the government itself; Macbeth was beloved and accepted by everyone before he changed after being crowned. MacDuff sums up here: "Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, 'Tis hard to reconcile."

I have never encountered such an interpretation of the play. The truth is, portraying Duncan as virtuous is a historic distortion by Shakespeare, similar to what he did to Richard III. In Holinshed's Chronicles, Duncan was a weak king who murdered his predecessor, invaded Macbeth's estate, was killed (but not murdered ); the king at the time when "Macbeth" was written was James I in England, IV in Scotland, a descendant of Banquo. Shakespeare promoted the idea of a God-ordained king who should not be harmed, but Scotland during Macbeth's time (in the 11th century ) was a tyranny of cruel power-hungry barons. Macbeth, by the way, ruled for 17 years.

Despite the despotism

It's clear why Shakespeare did what he did. His play is about a man who works for his ambition only, and because of his special relationship with his wife. In Doiashvili's interpretation, Macbeth has every right to act as he did. His actions are a consequence of the regime under which he lives (the citizens of modern tyrannies know something about such living conditions ). And yet, in the end, the murder catches up with the murderer, because a person always has personal responsibility for his fate, despite all the despotism and the witches.

And all this before I have mentioned the impressive level of acting by all the actors, in both the large and the small roles. This is a completely modern theater in the tradition of Shakespeare's exposed stage; all the effects are easily visible, including lighting, levers, masks, video. The scenery props are planks and stage areas that change slants and angles and scaffolding, and four low exercise benches. There is a lot of scaffolding on all sides, enabling the actors to appear to the audience from every possible angle.

The result is an absence of any attempt at a realistic-theatrical illusion. This setup leads to fascinating and highly imaginative visual activity on the stage - implied, marked, physical and exposed - but the words retain their own value, because the stage did not try to steal the poetry's thunder, as theater often errs in doing.

I could describe a lot of wonderful moments in this play, which is likely to become a guideline for theater people who want to learn how it's possible. But I will make do with one moment, which comes during the last scene of Act I, the scene of Macbeth's hesitations. Lady Macbeth (Nanka Kalatozishvili ) is already on her way offstage and he asks: "But what if we fail?" Usually Lady Macbeth attacks him: "We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place. And we'll not fail." In the Tbilisi version, she turns to him and shrugs her shoulder, "We fail." As if to say, "So what?"

Near the end, before the final showdown, Macbeth crawls, connected to an intravenous line, toward the body of Lady Macbeth who has just died. "She should have died hereafter," he says, trying to connect her to his IV, to revive her in spite of everything.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," he begins (in Laurence Olivier's opinion this monologue is just as good as "To be or not to be" ), "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more." And the witches, this time as doctors tenderly treating both him and her, complete the monologue for him: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

After the fall, Macbeth (Tornike Gogrichiani ) and Lady Macbeth meet in the next world, drink from the same chalice, embrace with great love and exchange a bitter smile. The witches, on their own scaffold, behind the curtain, start everything from the beginning, again with chimes: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain? Anon." And they turn out the light. Because that's how it is in the theaterland.