(My review of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz) for the Polski Theatre (Wroclaw) is published in the journal Shakespeare, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2012, available by clicking here)
Shakespeare’s Makbet directed by Maja Kleczewska and performed by Kochanowski Theatre, Globe to Globe, Tuesday 8th May 2012: Matinee
Co się stało, to już się nie odstanie‘What’s done is done.’
Dingy bedsits, run-down nightclubs, Macbeth as a hoody, the witches as transvestite prostitutes: this was the world of Maja Kleczewska’s appropriation of the Scottish Play, or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it the Contemporary Polish Underworld Play. And the Poles do contemporary-underworld-meets-Shakespeare extremely well. If it was in English, it would doubtless have been dubbed the Chav Macbeth. In fact, a friend of mine, David Hurley, is reminded of the 1997 project in Birmingham, Macbeth on the Estate, which he had recently watched on Youtube from his home in Japan…
Before the performance began, Macbeth and Banquo slouched, exhausted, in two beat-up armchairs. I was sitting in the middle gallery so I also had an excellent view of the witches, if that’s what they really were, in flamboyant wigs, skin-tight leggings or transparent negligees, ‘working’ the groundlings in a clever interpretation of original practices, offering their wares… Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth in a grubby t-shirt and knickers, clearly depressed, crawled onto the large bed downstage and pulled a blanket over her head, ignoring the men. The rest of the show would follow this pattern: high kitsch and outrageous humour alongside a dark, disturbing soullessness. When the prophecies were given, it was as if they were sexual favours (one witch in particular was taken with Banquo) and it was clear that anything that came true would be down to mere chance: these witch/wo/men had no real agency for all their feather boa panache.
There were notices all over the entrances to the theatre warning us that the production would contain strong adult content, and the people who had bought an Olympian ticket for all 37 Globe to Globe performances had been sent letters reiterating this. School groups were, apparently, asked to stay away (Macbeth is frequently studied at secondary school) and when I had booked my own ticket over the phone I had to assure the box office several times that, yes, I really did want to see it. ‘It’s ok,’ I eventually said, ‘I have seen Polish theatre before – I know what to expect!’
It wasn’t long before Duncan, some sort of Gangster King in silver sparkly shoes, turned up with his entourage of petty criminals and sex-workers, and took over the Macbeths’ bedsit. The two school teachers in the lower gallery who had defied the warnings and brought along a bunch of teenagers, blushed deep crimson as a drag queen mooned the audience – much to their charges’ delight. There were many other comic touches that I knew wouldn’t stay comic for long. A witch mimed to Gloria Gaynor’s gay anthem, ‘I will survive’. Macduff (the cartel’s accountant, perhaps?) brought along his briefcase and family: his peroxide blonde trophy wife downed vodkas as she pushed a pram to the beat of the music, whilst his two little daughters (not sons) peeked out from under the drinks tables and laughed at the adults along with the audience. At one point Macbeth mocked the Globe pigeons and a pigeon obligingly flew across the auditorium. And after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth slipped on those sparkly shoes like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. There was also fine acting and clever references, most of which I didn’t entirely understand, but the Polish audience around me did – and that was sort of the point. I met a friend after the performance. Aneta Mancewitz, a Polish researcher into Shakespeare appropriation, who is currently based at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Whilst many British observers still remained slightly puzzled at this stage by the Globe to Globe Festival, worrying in online newspaper review comments sections that if it ‘could be Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s language’, Aneta summed up what it was really about for the majority non-Anglo audiences: ‘This is amazing!’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I feel about it. I mean, on the one hand, there are all these English people here, and I’m thinking, oh no, this is what they’ll think we’re like in Poland, with bad hair and ugly clothes and drinking vodka all the time! But then, on the other hand… you don’t know what it is to hear Shakespeare spoken in Polish, here, in this space, on the Globe stage. It’s just so amazing!’
As for me, I didn’t need to know the cultural references to get that the production was a bitter satire on contemporary Polish society, but Tony Howard of the University of Warwick has helpfully put it in context anyway: ‘ this production dates originally from 2004 and was a very precise reaction to the cultural condition of Poland in the post-communist age. Duncan became the head of a mafia network which is very close to the empire of the country’s most notorious criminal , Adrzej Kolikowski (nicknamed Pershing). He was murdered by his enemies in 1999 while on holiday (in Zakopane, not Dunsinane) after a violent career that involved ‘investments’ in drugs and nightclubs.’ (Guardian Comments). His colleague, Paul Prescott has written a vibrant review of this production in the context of New EuroShakespeare on the Year of Shakespeare blog.
Yet by the interval I still hadn’t been too shocked. The warnings seemed over the top, and if I’m completely honest, I felt a little disappointed on this front. Where was the promised adult content that so threatened to corrupt the nation’s schoolchildren? As I said, I’d seen Polish theatre before, and in the interval I bumped into somebody else I knew who had. Retired English teacher, Joan, who I had met at the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Romania two years ago, said enthusiastically: ‘Is this the same play we saw in Craiova? You know which one I mean – the one with all the blood?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That was Monika Pęcikiewicz ’s Hamlet.’
‘Oh, yes, I remember now: Ophelia murdered in a bathtub full of blood, wasn’t it? Well, I’m looking forward to see what they’re going to do with the second half of this one.’
We settled back into our seats and, while everyone waited for the end of interval bell to toll, the little Macduff girls ran back onto the stage with bubble guns. The rainbow bubbles blew out across the audience, glistening in the weak springtime sun, and I thought, no, please, not this.
Two little girls ran about the stage laughing. Lady Macduff followed them on in a short, see-through nightie, still pushing that pram and now nervously chain-smoking, too. ‘Lady Macduff worries while her husband is in England’ read the surtitle, in ironic understatement. For the longest time, the audience could see Macbeth’s henchmen, Lennox and Ross, watching this little family group from backstage through the beaded curtain, biding their time. Then they ran on, donning Mickey Mouse masks, and dragged the children offstage screaming. Ross came back on, unmasked, and engaged Lady Macduff in a slow dance. And then he raped her. Face down on the floor. It went on and on and on and on, centre stage. Lennox strangled the baby in the pram. Hardly a drop of blood was spilled in the Macduff Family Murder. I glanced over at the school party and saw two of the boys in the front row look as if they had been crying. The girls had retreated a few rows further back. The teachers looked sick. There was no more giggling as Lady Macbeth committed suicide after what appeared to be a miscarriage or her broken husband dragged her body around the floor. He made no attempt to fight off his enemies and his shiny shoes came off easily.
Well, it wasn’t quite that bleak. When Birnham wood came to Dunsinane, the soldiers were jokily dressed in leafy camouflage. Ripping off their jackets to reveal ‘The Birnhamskis’ t-shirts, the show ended in a rave. In the performance I saw, Macduff was among them, but so was his wife. She danced downstage and flicked her peroxide locks victoriously. The transvestite prostitute led everyone in ‘I will survive’, although now the song wasn’t quite so pop culture kitsch… See Shekspir’s blog for an alternative reading of this ending, however.
It was a powerful production, so I was surprised at some of the negativity of the Anglophone response. Michael Billington’s review in the Guardian was just a little lazy. He wasn’t moved by the pop culture references, he wrote. He’d seen other Polish theatre and didn’t like this one as much, but he didn’t seem to think he needed to expand on this for his readers in any significant way. He had also not tried to find out anything about the mise-en-scene, and in a reaction that mirrored that of the conservatives in the Polish Catholic Church, dismissed the sexual abuse of one of the witches when new king pimp Macbeth forced her to go down on him in front of his wife as: a ‘transvestite whore […] assiduously fellates the new monarch as Lady Macbeth looks on’.
But why was this adaptation, well-respected in its native Poland, and hugely appreciated by its Polish speaking audiences here, problematic for some of the non-Polish speaking audiences at the Globe? For example, in a statement from the usually tactful and open-minded Christy Carson during her keynote talk at the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium the next week, she burst out with ‘well, maybe that’s what they do in Poland!’ much to the horror of the afore-mentioned Polish theatre academic who was sitting next to me. What was interesting was that Christy assumed that the room would share her sentiment; after all, Shakespearean actor Harriet Walters did, who according to Christy ‘didn’t want to criticize Polish theatre, but…’. It appeared that both women were shocked, disgusted and offended by the sex in this production. Neither are Mary Whitehouse figures, and I doubt if they minded the transvestite prostitutes, so I imagine that their objections were based on feminist grounds rather than moral. Like Diana Owen commenting on Prescott’s review it was the ‘gratuitous and graphic’ rape of Lady Macduff that upset them. Strangely, Owen felt this ‘betrayed a deeply misogynistic undercurrent to this whole production.’ I say strangely for two reasons. The first is because Maja Kleczewska is one of Poland’s up-and-coming female directors, whose work, like Pęcikiewicz’s, appears to return repeatedly to the violent abuse of women as a metaphor for the contemporary Polish condition. Both women are drawn in their productions to the figure of Electra and the world of Sarah Kane, but extend this vision beyond the personal. (Kleczewska’s other works include Electra, the Oresteia and Kane’s Blasted.) The second reason that I take issue with Owen, Carson and Walter’s opinion is because I think the onstage rape was necessary. Distasteful, ugly, sick and troubling, perhaps, but to pretend that Lady Macduff wouldn’t have been raped in this context is to be naively hopeful. In fact, Nancy Meckler’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC last year made me angry for this very reason. She, too, opened with a Kray-like gangster mise-en-scene foregrounding the abuse of Hyppolyta and the other women, yet after Hyppolyta became Titania in the woods, Athens became a place of wedding bliss, Hyppolyta a smiling bride with flowers in her hair, and all vestiges of sex trafficking inexplicably magicked away. The mise-en-scene was only there titillate, and the RSC didn’t have the courage to shock.
Michael Billington used the word xenophobia in a follow-up review, so I will use it here. I certainly don’t think Carson et alia are xenophobic – in fact, they are the opposite – but are our ways of seeing conditioned by our preconceived stereotypes of gender relations in particular cultures? If we think Eastern European society is misogynistic does that (mis)inform our reading? Does knowing that a director is female not male and that she has an artistic and political agenda in her depiction of male/female, straight/Queer dynamics make a difference? I would argue that Kleczewsta interrogates misogynism and homophobia rather than propogates them.
Paradoxically, when Christy Carson made her comments, the Globe to Globe blog was open behind her: ‘Murder. Rape. Mutilation. Cannibalism.’ screamed the tagline for Titus Andronicus…
On a final note, as I left Shakespeare’s Globe after Kochanowski Theatre’s Makbet, I passed the school party in the foyer. They seemed to have survived the ordeal and were now talking animatedly in what sounded like Polish.
Tom Bird, the festival director, had a brilliant and daring vision in this Globe to Globe festival, not only to invite Shakespeare in other linguistic languages, but to let many companies speak in their own cultural language, too, even if that meant the minority Anglophone audience might not get it.