Transvestites. Rape. Chaos. Bloodlust. Karaoke. All these extremes are on full display in MAKBET – the Polish offering of Teatr Im Kochanowskiego in the Globe-to-Globe Festival. I’ve just come from standing in the rain for this riveting though uneven, over-the-top adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, performed entirely in Polish, and I must say I’m still chilled to the bone – and not entirely due to the unseasonable London weather.
I had fears that going to see these Shakespeare plays in foreign languages would be exhausting. As a lover of the language, I wasn’t going to get my usual fix, and would have to focus on the cultural rarity of getting to see an entirely different perspective through mostly visual storytelling. But let me say this now – this was the least boring production of Macbeth I think one could find – anywhere.
Though I don’t speak Polish, it was obvious that instead of any direct line-for-line translation, this was a freely adapted effort aimed at exploring a thoroughly modern interpretation of the play to reflect extreme cynicism about power and its ability to corrupt. Time and time again, the direction (by Maja Kleczewska) emphasized shock over subtlety and externalized horror over inner torment. One often wanted to look away, but against the glorious backdrop of the Globe, this production was a live flaming car accident that begged dissection if only to unravel what the hell was going on. English speaking fans like me were no doubt left not with poetic insights of the tortured soul, but with R rated images we’d prefer to forget – but can’t.
The trauma begins with a light-hearted transvestite prowl through the yard. The four witches, bedecked in whorish and gaudy attire, saunter about amusingly while flirting with the groundlings and handing out shots of vodka (they were real, until the Globe told them to please use water). It wasn’t yet clear they were the witches, but one was safe to assume. It reminded me of Robert Woodruff’s drag queen rendition of Island of Slaves at the American Repertory Theatre several years back. And so our experience began with “oh please don’t come play with me,” which I certainly don’t find an entirely inappropriate way to prime us for the dark underbelly of this rich play.
Onstage, as part of the preshow, are Macbeth and Banquo, nursing a few wounds from the wars, dressed in hoodies, slumped in cheap arm chairs and mindlessly checking their phones. Lady Macbeth, a wet blanket of depression, flops around listlessly in the bed off to the side. The domestic scene screamed untreated PTSD, and one was left to wonder whether soldiers fresh from battle often find it hard to find normal pleasures to fill a life that was just defined by the oversized stakes and excitement of battle and victory. Obviously, the Macbeths were destined to create their own battle here at home to renew the meaning of their lives, which struck me as a rather original and intriguing way to start us off.
The trannies show up to their house to cheer them up, which would appear to be a regular occasion. They flirt grotesquely with the two men, showing carnal pleasure as the rule rather than the exception. Lady Mac doesn’t seem to mind this ostentation as she prowls about in her PJ’s while Macbeth and Banquo hear these gauche she-males utter their prophecies. It’s all fun and games until Ross and Lenox – looking like the mob lords they no doubt are – arrive to congratulate Macbeth with Thane of Cawdor.
Because the witches didn’t seem to Macbeth as the ‘strange unnatural hags’ they were to us, it was amusing to see whether either man was going to take this ‘prophecy’ seriously. After all, it wasn’t really a prophecy but an off-hand prediction or two by a friend who’s probably had too much to drink already this morning. But as Banquo leaves we discover the prediction was not lost on Lady M, who uses both her depression and her sexuality as blunt weapons to turn Macbeth’s attention toward the murder of Duncan. What was so interesting about this scene to me was that for whatever reason, this new plot of hers was clearly the only thing that could make her feel alive again. Her beginning the play deep in a suicidal depression (read: totally dead inside) made this grasping for power seem familiar, desperate, and more believable than the Disney villain that Lady M often seems to be when the director and actress fail to communicate a clear motive for her bloodlust to the audience. That said, the actual convincing of her husband was hard to buy into not knowing Polish. It seemed impossible for this guy, who we already liked, to go from horsing around with friends of ill repute to agreeing to regicide. But in a moment, it seemed, the Macbeths were happy again, groping and snogging and agreeing to their fate. And we’re off.
Duncan and the guests arrive in an eastern European rave complete with karaoke, the trannies, drugs, lots of drinking, table dancing, house music, excessive mischief, and oh there are the Macduff’s in the corner – he a buttoned-up utterly uninteresting diplomat stuck to his Blackberry – she a strung out ditzy mom with two young girls and a baby carriage. All is certainly not well there. It’s obvious the production is playing up how incredibly disposable and unsympathetic Macbeth’s future casualties are as humans, which I hope you’d agree is a rather clever way to make Macbeth’s charisma and morality all the more gray for the audience. This world seems like it needs a bloody cleansing (a Scottish spring?) or a people’s revolution, if only for the decadence that we have come to despise today in our powers of state (Sarkozy and his Rolexes, Mitt and his car elevator…). After the niceties and crass lauding of Macbeth, accompanied by one or two other businesses of state (killing a prisoner decked in nothing but underwear and a black hood – Abu Ghraib anyone?), the rave begins in earnest. More loud music lip-synced by the trannies (a swirling and grotesque Mein Heir…), stripping, sexual abusing of the women in the room, group grinding, and extreme, lawless debauchery ensue. Maybe something like one of Strauss-Kahn’s overlord sex parties.
Duncan, (think Berlusconi), strips down to vivacious hoots and cheers from his acolytes, proceeds to sexually assaults his belt, then uses it as an S&M collar. There was a great moment where he gave the end of it to Lady Mac to choke him, presumably to get him off. Perhaps some heavy-handed foreshadowing here, but as you may already glean from this play-by-play, such customary artistic subtleties were not the currency this production was going to be trading on. This Makbet was quickly turning into a romp by mob – a phantasmagoria of elitist decadence fueled by a lawless and bloodthirsty aristocracy that was doomed for utter failure if only by their drug use alone. It’s amazing Duncan wasn’t dead already of an overdose, or found naked and dead, Carradine-style, swinging by his belt from a rung in his closet.
Along these lines, there were other unforgettable images and moments of note. Refreshingly, Banquo was played as an alpha male – not the moral boyscout he can so often seem to be. After the party, everyone is seen passed out in the same room, making the murder all the more dangerous. Right as Macbeth goes in for the kill, Banquo wakes up to interrupt him. It’s obvious he sees what’s about to happen. They then engage in a mostly silent, full bodied wrestling match, with Banquo, who’s arm is still in a sling, decidedly winning. He then goes back to his corner and passes out. Fascinating.
For once, we see the actual murder – a blood-spattered affair right out of Woyzeck. But hysterically, while this is happening in real time, the tallest trannie, played no doubt by one of the oldest and lithest men in the company, comes out to do a lipsych routine of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” during which he-she forgets the lyrics several times, all while Duncan is writhing behind us. So we’re laughing (this guy is funny after all), and the knife goes in and out and in and out – and wow.
Macbeth returns to his wife bloody and obviously shaken. Now the PTSD begins to really pay off. She has to strip him and bathe him while he recounts the murder – beautiful. She goes to lay the daggers by the body herself, comes back and is a bit horrified by the blood. And what happens next was the most successful moment of the whole production – in a totally impulsive moment, Macbeth takes her hands and begins to lick the bood off. The audience vocally registered their disgust. Then she gives it a go, tasting the blood – her face shrivels in distaste but she tries it again. Now they’re both licking each other clean, Duncan’s royal blood acting as a sort of metaphorical lube to their graphic sexuality. I’ve never seen that before. And I hope I never see it again.
After intermission the rain really came down. I was getting soaked to the bone but I had to see how this strange and twisted adaptation was going to end. It doesn’t end as well as it began. An amusing scene ensued among the four men who had to deal with what to do over the kingdom. Comically they all appeared in tight speedos sipping umbrella drinks and soaking in the sun. The newspapers arrive to reveal the news that Macbeth had killed those two guards no production ever shows. Suspicion mounts. But all of a sudden (and to my confusion), they all spontaneously realize that Macbeth is heir to the throne, and suddenly these naked men are jumping up and down celebrating like baboons. Oh but they’re not all this happy – Banquo turns of the music. Pouty face. Way to get yourself whacked in the next scene dude.
The banquet, with everyone in spooky paper mache masks except for Banquo, was erratic and impossible to follow. Lady M didn’t apologize for her husband – she just sat there. She’s pregnant now so maybe that’s why – best not to upset the heir that is never to be…
She ends up committing suicide right in front of Macbeth, swallowing a whole bottle of pills. Macbeth cries for Seyton, who hadn’t been seen until this moment. Now, in a play where you can’t follow the language, suddenly hearing Macbeth yell “Satan! Satan! Satan! Satan!” and then seeing the actor who played Duncan show up seemed like an effective choice for me. Too bad English speaking companies don’t really have that option without inducing ridicule, as Shakespeare definitely didn’t write that line.
Flash to the tortured Macduff household. MacD has fled but we’ll never see him again (no Malcolm/MacDuff scene in England in this adaptation). Instead, all we have is strung-out mom is inhaling a cigarette while walking her baby in a carriage. Her young girls are running about shooting bubbles at each other. Cute. Suddenly two men in gigantic Mickey Mouse masks roll in as if to rob a bank, kill the girls and take them away. Ross takes off his mask, bends Lady MacD over on the floor RIGHT in front of the audience on the apron, in the pouring rain, and in real time really, really rapes her. At this point in the production the audience has realized, myself included, that we are to distance ourselves from this play. We can’t be fully present for all of this. Artistically it had shown itself to be bold yet jerky, grasping at loaded images, and to be honest a bit of a glorified mess. They had us at the blood licking, but the 2 minute raping with screams and orgasms – not so much. I wouldn’t say tiresome – to treat it as banal seems to me to be an insult to people who’ve tragically experienced something like this – but I’d offer that it would have been safer to take cues more directly from Shakespeare.
Oh, and after the rape, Ross notices has some blood on his hand. GROSS. He smells it, rubs it on his hands, reaches in the baby carriage, and with little remorse, snaps the baby’s neck and kicks the carriage over. Nice touch.
Rape and infanticide aside, I did like Lenox and Ross (conflated as both advisors and murderers), as Macbeth’s coked-up henchmen. I didn’t mind all the drugs and booze. I was into the sad and funny trannies, who actually struck me as probably the most Shakespearean invention of the whole production in that Greek chorus sort of way – flowing easily among all the characters as fools are wont to do. I loved that Macbeth had several pairs of these diamond-encrusted shoes that were passed on to Malcolm at the end – sort of the strange idiosyncracy we’ve come to expect from foreign despots. But ultimately, if we’re going to go full-on into “The horror! The Horror!” it has to be beautifully constructed horror: images that are so compelling that they frame these real-world atrocities with something newly artful. One can’t rape someone on the Globe stage just like that and have the whole audience really live in it. Ditto the gratuitous blow job of Macbeth by own of the trannies. Instead of going into it full bore with the actors, we’ll pull back, we’ll judge, we’ll hedge. BUT. The Teatr Im Kochanowskiego was offering something else for review: a window into a Shakespearean tale that was more snuff film than high art – more something unrated you’d watch on Netflix alone and lonely in a hotel – more private and unspoken and something you’d never tell your parents about. And to do that, they had to break a few ceilings, show some seams, and more importantly, some real guts.