Two people in modern dress clutch one another at the front of a stage, while a group of traditionally dressed people stand in the backdrop.

July 26, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

The Tragedy of Macbeth @ Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio

The opening of Tang Shu-Wing’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (recorded in 2019, and made available to World Shakespeare Congress delegates) announces the arrival of a modern couple in a dream world, through which they will navigate the world of Macbeth in the guise of that play’s two protagonists. The dream framing is never given more explanation, but provides an almost hallucinatory air to this striking, often beautiful version of the play, which stages a relationship between past and present that places Macbeth in a mythological space.

The Macbeth and Lady Macbeth figures (I couldn’t find casting information for the 2019 production) stand, in their modern costumes, in direct contrast to the rest of the play’s dramatis personae, clad in traditional Chinese wear. As such, the images offer a collision between the histories of war that shaped the country and the modern inheritors of these histories. As well as creating a closer visual bond between the Macbeths themselves, the clashing costumes implied a playful approach to the re-performance of this history, the dream-world allowing for a kind of role-play that was made even more obvious by the two actors swapping parts halfway through. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in this performance become iconographic.

Played against a backdrop evoking misty mountains, and performed on a simple white cloth, the production combines pageantry and physical theatre to create stunning visual images that perform the collisions of past and present. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embrace downstage as Duncan and his troops, in full finery, stand in tableau and then advance downstage towards them. The witches, clad in white, stand on chairs and turn eerie circles; Macbeth and a representation of MacDonwald draw swords and move in slow motion. The visualisations of scenes capture something of the grandeur of period productions, the pageantry of dynastic history, but undercut by the imposition of the modern Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the trappings that their dreamworld allows them, from microphones to Cuban music. As such, the slow, stylised movements of history are placed into continual juxtaposition with the banality of the present, remediating and even commodifying history.

The archness of the anachronisms is more overt at times than others. In place of the Porter, the actor of Lady Macbeth is given a prepared speech to read which offers a history lesson about the Gunpowder Plot and Jacobean London, before offering dramaturgical rationales for including a short comic scene at this point, ending with the actor laughing loudly and artificially. At times such as this, the production plays entirely as commentary on Macbeth, rather than a performance of the play. And when the two actors appear having swapped their parts before the banquet scene, the male actor in a dress waving smilingly at the audience before asking Macbeth ‘Are you a man?’, the undercutting of historicist approaches feels complete. But at the same time, the profound beauty of the stylised historical imagery has its own impact that suggests the continued allure of this idea of pastness.

The more abstract physical elements includes an anonymous black-clad figure who adheres to the edges of the stage but intervenes at key moments, not least when wielding the dagger that leads Macbeth to Duncan, but also serves both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth throughout. This representation of desire, ambition, darkness, is also absent at key moments – notably, for instance, Banquo’s Ghost does not appear, evoked instead only by the same Cuban music that played during his murder. At this point, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (having only just swapped roles) seem perhaps overtaken by the dream that they are part of.

Other choices collapse moments within the play. The murder of Macduff’s family, for instance, is shifted to be played partway through the scene between Macduff and Malcolm. Sitting on stools at opposite ends of the stage for a formal conversation (and I should note, although this is a Hong Kong production performed in Cantonese, the blocking at this point reminded me of nothing so much as the scene between Washizu and Miki as they return from their encounter with the forest spirit in Throne of Blood), they remained sat there as the murder of Macduff’s wife and children took place, before returning to his reaction to the news. The compression of action throughout contributed to the dream impression.

While I wish that the implications of the dream had been spelled out further – what did the framing signify? – the images of this Macbeth resonated throughout, right up to the final moment when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – now dead, but both onstage, Lady Macbeth having shadowed her husband in his final moments – walked upstage towards the opened curtain, only for Macbeth to pause and perform a handstand. In some ways, this flipped moment stood for the subversion that pervaded the production, deliberately turning the play on its head and inviting audiences to see it from a different perspective. It’s a production that has lasted now for several years, and hopefully will continue to grow and develop.

Posted in Theatre review