TR Warszawa: Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Macbeth 2008 by the Brooklyn Bridge

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TR Warszawa's Macbeth by the Brooklyn Bridge

TR Warszawa’s Macbeth by the Brooklyn Bridge

TR Warszawa: Macbeth 2008
Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse, Susan Feldman, artistic director; in association with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York. At the Tobacco Warehouse, Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, Dumbo, Brooklyn. Performed in Polish with English supertitles.

Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna
Sets and costumes by Stephanie Nelson and Agnieszka Zawadowska
Music by Abel Korzeniowski, Jacek Grudzien and Piotr Dominski
Lighting by Jacqueline Sobiszewski
Video design by Bartek Macias
Special effects designed by Waldo Warshaw.

Cezary Kosinski – Macbeth
Aleksandra Konieczna – Lady Macbeth
Tomasz Tyndyk – Banquo
Michal Zurawski – Macduff
Danuta Stenka – Hecate
Miroslaw Zbrojewicz – Duncan
Jacek Poniedzalek – Lenox
Jan Dravnel – Seyton

In preparing this review—more in that than in actually witnessing the performance—I had to remind myself that this is not the play which has come down to us as Shakespeare’s Scottish Play with some conspicuous additions by Thomas Middleton, as well as some other cuts and adjustments. It is rather Macbeth 2008, Gzregorz Jarzyna’s adaptation of the play. What made this hard was that it resembled Shakespeare’s play in so many ways that I couldn’t help thinking about it and making comparisons. Jarzyna’s spectacle even includes several excerpts from the best-known speeches in the play, inserted into the crude, obscenity-ridden dialogue that Jarzyna has created in the style of contemporary Hollywood film, especially the work of his hero, Ridley Scott. If I had been able to attend the lecture Jarzyna gave at the Polish Cultural Center about a month before the much-publicized opening of his show, I’d have been better prepared, and perhaps more resistant to comparisons with the Jacobean play, so admirably presented by a company from the Chichester Festival barely a mile distant from its venue in the armpit of the Brooklyn Bridge. All Mr. Jarzyna’a lights, noise, and bodily fluids amounted to pretty feeble stuff in comparison with the all-too-familiar words of the old play. His purpose is to present the story of Macbeth as a nightmare, as if the play were not nightmarish enough in itself.On the other hand, it was great fun to be there in the Tobacco Warehouse, a brilliant arrangement, brilliantly executed by St. Ann’s Warehouse, which itself stands across the street. The bridge loomed over the open space, and the grinding buzz of traffic created an ominous atmosphere, not unlike Ridley Scott’s more apocalyptic moods. For this reason, and because of the complexity of TR Warzawa’s sound effects, the audience was expected to put on headsets to hear the production and its Polish dialogue. A somewhat truncated English translation was projected as super-titles. (My Polish is not good at all, but I do know a few dirty words, and I can say that the translation didn’t do justice to them.) I detest the ubiquitous use of amplification on the stage, but in this case it was obviously essential both to the theory and the practice of the performance. The audience sat on bleachers facing an ingenious set, which provided four enclosed spaces for the actors, as well as its roof, and large white surfaces for projections. This gave Mr. Jarzyna ample opportunity to create tension and anticipation, as well as to present scenes simultaneously. Left and above there was a space used more for domestic locations, below it a tiled, basement-like room, recalling that of the Chichester production, to its right a basement space with washing machines (Instead of trying to wash her hands, Lady Macbeth tackles the laundry before hanging herself.), and above that a balcony. Besides providing a good deal of variety, the set recalls the façade-like background of the Roman stage and its Renaissance descendents, an ennobling allusion in a way, but one we’d expect more readily to see in the Comedy of Errors.

The show opens with the Scottish nobles and royals barking orders at one another, dressed as dehumanized American soldiers. A red cooler full of Coca Cola cans reenforces the allusion. We realize from the veiled women who suggest the Weird Sisters that we are not in medieval Scotland, but in contemporary Iraq. Macdonwald is an insurgent, brutally beheaded by Macbeth, initiating the endless flow of bodily fluids which keep this production afloat. Now I’m only too happy to see some trenchant critique of Bush’s stupid and immoral war, but I could not help thinking that Macbeth,which takes place in a civil war, is not well-served by a transference to an entrepreneurial undertaking like Iraq.

Here I go making those comparisons again. I am the last to assert that the texts of Shakespeare’s plays are sacred. They weren’t for Shakespeare himself, and when the plays were revived during the Restoration, it was impossible to present them to an audience as they in the current folio editions. By the early nineteenth century, the Bowdlers thought they were making the plays truer to Shakespeare’s genius by removing their vulgarities. As for vulgarities, Samuel Johnson was offended by the word “knife” (Macbeth, I.v.52, cf. The Rambler, No. 168), more aesthetically than morally, one must admit, and of course today, as in Shakespeare’s time, the knife as object or as prop is not fully potent unless its phallic associations have been unleashed, although Willy was of course unaware of its Freudian Prägnanz. Macbeth 2008 has its share of that, but in it sex is something more of the here and now. I am happy to report that Lord and Lady Macbeth enjoy a richer sex life in this production than in most others. While they are standing in pools of blood, excited by the carnage, Macbeth lifts his lady out of the slop and has her against the Coke machine. But of course their coitus is interrupted by the non-stop action. At least the thought was there—and more, at least as far as penetration.

Jarzyna intends to shock us with this, I suppose, as he does with the nudity of Banquo’s ghost. Tomasz Tyndyk certainly has the physique to be a dire and threatening presence on the stage, but the director drags the scene out just a bit too long, betraying his all-too-patent ambition to épater les bourgeois rather than to horrify us properly with a display of guilt and the supernatural. Also, when the mad Lady Macbeth gets her chance to contribute to the liquid mess on the stage by pissing all over her legs and high heels, it goes on for too long, and it is all too apparent that the superb actress Aleksandra Konieczna has been instructed to pour water from a ewer into a funnel, or some such device. To piss that much any lady would have to be drunk on at least six litres of beer—a phenomenon not unkown in Poland. (Or perhaps Jarzyna thinks of it as local color: I have observed it myself on the streets of Edinburgh after football matches, not to mention here in Williamstown, among our hard-drinking undergraduates.) If I say that I believe that pissing onstage is for the Porter and no one else, I am probably showing only my stodginess. After all, in nightmares and dreams of any sort, isn’t agency often transferred in a contradictory way? According to this dream-logic, Titania should be the one sprouting the ears, not her innamorato. In any case, what a contrast to the Chichester Macbeth, in which Lady Macbeth’s deteriorating mental state so powerfully arouses a sympathy we never expected to find. But that is Shakespeare, not Jarzyna

The performance was a great spectacle, full of impressive devices. Video projections were able to show us the actors from different standpoints. We could observe Cezary Kosinski as Macbeth and the Polish movie star, Danuta Stenka (her hair concealed under a rubber cap), full-face on screen while the actors themselves adopted threatening or erotic postures on stage. Mme. Stenka plays Hecate, standing in for the Weird Sisters, and appears in a wonderful, enormous full-face shot, recalling those of Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, probably on purpose, although, if I remember correctly, those close-ups were inserted by the studio, not Orson Welles, just as it was Middleton, not Shakespeare, who decided to make the most of Hecate. Of course none of that matters, really. There is no place for purists on the stage…but…Shakespeare’s audiences knew their horror, and could expect it in a rawer form from Webster or, yes, Middleton. In spirit at least, Middleton gets his due more than Shakespeare in this production, which I suppose is fair enough. Actually Charles Lamb’s fine observation on the differences between Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s creations is apt for this whole production: “They are foul Anomalies…as they are without human passions, so seem they to be without human relations.” According to Jarzyna, even Lord and Lady Macbeth lack human passions, except for the lowest appetites for physical gratification and power. On the whole, however, the primary stylistic source is Ridley Scott, whom I haven’t yet forgiven for Gladiator, with its gratuitous violence, cheesy recreation of the ancient Roman environment, and general mindlessness. Scott is supposed to be the hero of young film-goers, but I’ve yet to meet anyone under the age of twenty-rive who is really taken in by his work. However, if a director wants to get to the lowest common denominator really fast, imitating Scott is a good bet.

I’m no prude. What I object to in this production, beyond its psychological reductiveness, really to a comic book—or Blade Runner—level, is the clumsy, obvious way the “shockers” were administered. Even if I were to forget about Shakespeare entirely, there were plenty of potentially powerful ideas, but I had the impression they were thrown in haphazardly for nothing more than effect, not only interpretively but in the use of video and computer-generated projections. In recent months I’ve seen impressive applications of these techniques, for example in Jonah Bokaer’s The Invention of Minus One, in the Chichester Macbeth, and most recently in the WTF’s The Atheist—all superb, dramatically telling creations. TR Warszawa’s work was crude in comparison. If those big close-ups of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or Hecate had conveyed some affecting meaning, they would have been really powerful, but unfortunately they didn’t go that far. Finally, if I had succeeded in forgetting about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I wouldn’t perhaps be so conscious of how much was lost in the translation to the dramatic language of the multiplex. If Ridley Scott was more of a presence in this production that William Shakespeare or Thomas Middleton, then what was it, really? Not Macbeth but Regietheater. This is certainly not the first time Regietheater has appeared over here, but fortunately, it has not taken over to the extent it has on the Continent. American opera and theater-goers resist it—to their credit—but evidently not in this case. Macbeth 2008 was an enormous critical and box-office success.

Danuta Stenka and Cezary Kosinski as Hecate and Macbeth.

Danuta Stenka and Cezary Kosinski as Hecate and Macbeth.

It was also an energetic and imaginative experiment, and there was some superb acting, above all by Konieczna (especially admired by my companion at the perfromance, Omar Sangare, who said, “Alexandra Konieczna, as Lady Macbeth, was intriguing, obsessive, and provocative. Having worked with Ms. Konieczna in many theatre productions in Poland, it was a treat to see her performance in an acting style I sincerely treasure.”) and Stenka, and I cannot say that it went to waste, either. Above all, you can’t blame Susan Feldman, the President and Artistic Director of St. Ann’s Warehouse for going to the considerable  trouble of bringing the production over to Brooklyn. Tickets were only $35, after all. Yet, it would be a pity if New Yorkers got the impression that there was nothing more to Polish theater than Regietheater. As Omar observed, “Why must theatre compete with film? What is to be proven by such a contest? These two aesthetics are rather diverse and should stay diverse. While a film attempts to reach perfection, theatre should remain an art that celebrates simplicity, honesty, and imperfection.” Poland has a great theatrical tradition, both classical and avant garde, and this was far from the best example I’ve seen. (In fact the last surviving Elizabethan theater, destroyed by fire in the early 19th century, was built by the English merchants in the Hanseatic City of Gdansk, the home of a Shakespeare festival today.) Perhaps it was those slide shows of the construction of the stage that did it, but I can’t help thinking that this was another example of New Yorkers’ often underestimated gullibility…and all in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Just how much would you pay for it?

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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