Shakespeare on Another Frequency: SITI’s “Radio Macbeth” comes to Court Theatre

“Every single play I direct brings up the question–why do we do plays?” says Anne Bogart, the founder of New York’s SITI theater company. “Radio Macbeth,” the company’s work now showing at Court Theatre, is no exception. Set in the 1940s, the play follows an ensemble of actors rehearsing for a radio performance of “Macbeth” in an empty theater. With multiple layers of performance going on throughout the play, the question arises as to what exactly the audience is watching: a performance of “Macbeth,” a performance of a company performing “Macbeth,” or a performance of the inner workings of the SITI ensemble on top of these other layers. Is it about Shakespeare’s famous work, or the experience of being an actor?

The play’s progression suggests that it can be about both. As the actors put themselves through the intense emotions of characters in Macbeth, the internal dynamics of the ensemble come to be aligned with, and expressed through these emotional states. The internal turmoil and shame of Macbeth’s treachery presented in the Shakespearian text becomes scrambled with the emotions of the actor who plays Macbeth in the radio version–concern about his own moral failing involving one of his fellow actresses. Throughout, Shakespearian themes bounce in and out of the modern world of the performance.

The idea to present “Macbeth” in such a way stemmed from the discovery of an Orson Welles adaptation of the play for radio, which had been recorded but never aired. Upon hearing the recording, co-directors Anne Bogart and Darren West were struck by the intensity of the play when the audience was left to focus on the sounds and text, leaving the rest to the imagination. Their staging minimizes visual stimuli, and in their place creates a complex series of sounds, both from the text and outside of it, that heighten and punctuate the emotional atmosphere as something being processed and spoken by each individual and devoid of other distractions. Darren West describes the careful choosing of sounds made at each moment as a kind of scoring, “just the way you would a piece of music.”

Beyond the specific inspiration to create a piece centered on the radio version of “Macbeth,” West describes how–after working on five different “Macbeth” performances with over-the-top visual displays–he was generally ready to produce something that let the text speak for itself. For West, it’s about “stripping away all the pretext and expectation about what the play actually is.” Instead of using the vast amount of technology at our disposal to dazzle the audience, he asks, “why can’t we just look into Macbeth’s face and have him tell us? It’s all there.”

In this regard, one of the highlights of the play is the famous “boil boil, toil and trouble” scene, which actress Makela Spielman transforms from a cultural cliché into a chilling monologue. Bogart describes how “it’s so interesting to hear those words, because they have been so obscured.”

For all that “Radio Macbeth” adds to the original “Macbeth,” however, presenting it in this way does add layers that may counteract the attempts at simplification. By making the emotional turmoil among the actors reading “Macbeth” a stand-in for what goes on throughout Shakespeare’s play, the directors have made it a little harder to focus on the pure emotional import of the original. Perhaps the point is to show us that Shakespeare is universal, and that cheating on your husband can entail the same emotional processes and personal significance as murder. I’m not so convinced though, and in watching the play, I found myself watching on the level of the actors themselves performing the play, gathering emotional strength from the Shakespearian text in order to express their own problems, rather than vice versa. Perhaps this was the point, but I can’t help thinking that the struggles that Shakespeare wrote about are a little more powerful than the inner lives of actors. For what it is, the decision to put Shakespeare in such a context does present a new way of watching and hearing a classic, and ultimately raises questions, just as Bogart hopes, about what theater is supposed to do.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. November 6-December 7. Wednesday, 10:30am (student matinee) and 7:30pm; Thursday, 7:30pm; Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm and 8pm; Sunday, 2:30pm and 7:30pm. (773)753-4472.

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