On the evening of February 8 2018, a group of Liberal Arts and Natural Science (LANS) students attended a performance of Macbeth at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
The show was part of the program curated by DanceXchange company and produced by Mark Bruce company. The show portrayed the classical Shakesperian story through a variety of cleverly perfected dance choreography . Having no prior knowledge of either the story or the style of dance, I had no idea what to expect.
In actuality, I was glad I had no preconceptions, for I was able to truly appreciate just how impactful this piece was without the influence of context. It was surprisingly easy to just sit back and watch the dance unfold, without the scramble to find lost threads of plot I’m a little ashamed to admit I experienced at the ballet. The interpretive nature of this dance meant that, where a particular intricacy of the story was hard to convey, the emotions that motivated the action could be portrayed in a way that told it more effectively.
Indeed, even if I hadn’t been able to follow the action, the movements of the dancers were exquisite. Macbeth being such a dark and tortured piece, there were moments it seemed that the performers were throwing themselves entirely at the mercy of the emotions they had to bring to life, wildly tossing and turning in the air yet somehow never once missing the mark. It was feral and graceful at the same time, and throughout I had to keep reminding myself of the intense training necessary just to create that illusion of effortlessness. In fact, within every scene the style of dance and choreography perfectly conveyed the emotions of the characters. For instance, the Macbeths fluidly dance around each other as Lady Macbeth attempts to convince Macbeth to murder the King. This section was built on anticipation with choreography centering on push and pull as Macbeth is coerced closer to sin.
Another distinctive scene with a clever use of dance and theatrics was the depiction of Macbeth seeing ghosts. In this scene, Macbeth is staring at a character on stage. This character was just murdered by Macbeth, with the audience as witness. It is then made obvious that said character is now a ghost through the clever theatrical positioning of Lady Macbeth. She moves to stand in front of the murdered character and slowly raises her arms in question. At this point it becomes clear that only the audience and Macbeth are visualising the murdered character, with the rest of the cast unable to see anything. I thought this was especially clever, not only in showing that the character is not truly there, but also in encouraging the audience to feel his distraught confusion in a more powerful way. This is because the audience has witnessed the murder of the character and then sees thecharacter come back to the stage; thus, they are also confused as to why they are seeing this character again along with Macbeth. Indeed, this type of emotional portrayal was integrated throughout the performance.
After the show we had an opportunity to partake in a Q&A session, in which the choreographer, Mark Bruce presented various perspectives on the production.
For example, he revealed that he found inspiration for his stylistic choices in various films and it was evident that he aspired for a performance as compelling and complex as a film, at least interms of special effects. He achieved this through his fantastically innovative use of props and body paint. Though most of the fights were conducted gracefully, through dance, there were scenes in which the sheer brutality of war had to hit home. One way to be suggestive was the use of body paint; applied so seamlessly that it appeared part of the dance, with the use of colours complementing the plotline perfectly. It didn’t need to be explained to the audience that two black lines down the cheeks meant death and finality. We knew! The set was not a traditional, static one, fading into the background as it would in most plays anddances, but become active and involved in the action at various times. This made for a fascinating watch. Ambiguous wooden poles that added to the threatening atmosphere for most of the first act became a stake for a severed head, bars behind which the dead were trapped,weapons for warriors of the revolution. Their journey followed that of the characters and added to the sense of instability, political and personal. I can’t pretend to know thespecific ins and outs of the plot even now, but the fear that something unstoppable had been started was felt perhaps more deeply by the audience than it would have been had it been vocalised.
The presentation of Macbeth through the dancers and their director was truly captivating. The visual mediums of the performance were complemented by the music score – a perfect mixture of haunting instrumentals and jarring, threatening sound effects – to create a truly nightmarish ambiance. Despite knowing nothing of the plot or medium prior to the evening, I came away deeply surprised and with a significant understanding of the emotions and story underpinning Macbeth, at least in the interpretation offered by Mark Bruce’s company.
Contributed by Claire Fletcher and Charlotte Joiner
Photos by Nicole Guarino (three witches) and Emil Toesco (group discussion)