Two respected theatre artists are giving the Scottish play a new "voice." Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy) stars Stephen Dillane in a solo version of Shakespeare's play, accompanied by a musical trio and a children's chorus, and opening at the REDCAT this week. On-screen, Dillane has played the lead in Welcome to Sarajevo, Merlin in King Arthur, and Leonard Woolf in The Hours opposite Nicole Kidman. For his stage work he was awarded the 1999 London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 2000 (1999 season) for Best Actor for his performance in The Real Thing at the Donmar Warehouse. In 2000 he received the Tony for its Broadway production.
His Macbeth collaborator is director Travis Preston, whose recent credits include the King Lear produced by the Center for New Theater at the Brewery Arts Complex and at the Frictions Festival 2003 in Dijon, France; Boris Godounov and Luigi Nono's Al Gran Sole Carico D'Amore at the Hamburg State Opera; and the world premieres of Democracy in America and Terra Nova at the Yale Repertory Theatre. He is artistic director of the Center for New Theater and head of the Directing Program at CalArts.
Although the project is a world premiere, their alliance is old, cerebral, and apparently quite professionally comfortable at this point.
Stephen Dillane: We met while I was at Bristol, actually. Your sister was studying there, and we students wanted to do a project. She phoned you; you were at Yale at the time. And you came over and directed us over one of the Easter holidays in a production of The Seagull. And we've been in and out of contact ever since, with sort of ongoing, stuttering conversations about theatre and process—how to work, what's wrong with it all, what's right with it all. You were working on a production of Boris Godunov with a chorus of thousands, and you phoned up the day after you'd opened it and said you wanted to do a one-man play. And Macbeth was the one you wanted to do.
Travis Preston: The title was your idea. The line, "a modern ecstasy," comes from the play. It appears in a speech by Ross as he's describing the situation in Scotland after Macbeth has become the king. He speaks of sorrow. We had the feeling that, as we were working on the piece, we were experiencing a work in which modern consciousness was almost created. I feel more and more what this process revealed to us was the whole emergence of modern man. And that was a profound discovery. It's a piece I love. I directed a production in Copenhagen. I became frustrated with the production problems that emerged that are inherent in the piece. I also discovered that 30 percent or 35 percent of the text is spoken by Macbeth. What he doesn't speak seems to emanate from his consciousness in some way. So I called you up. I think you were justifiably skeptical.
Dillane: I immediately went into denial. I nodded and said, "Yeah, good idea," all the time thinking, "I can pull out of this at any moment." But we carried on a conversation about it. And then Sundance came up with an offer to work at the theatre lab there for a couple of weeks. And at the same time you suggested these dates, which is when it became concrete for me for the first time. I started to take it seriously, in terms of product rather than process.
Preston: It's at least four years since we've been talking about it, and that first little time we spent together working on it was three years ago. One of the things I think is pretty remarkable about the process is that it's very difficult to say where ideas emerged. I think we have had collective impulses. It always seemed appropriate for there to be some musical presence in the work, because the inherent musicality in the piece is certainly in some way brought into focus by you doing the entire text.
Dillane: One of the things were dealing with is the idea of character and personality—when did these turn up? There's no doubt that, in the play itself, there aren't that many indications as to character or personality. Nobody's really written to have any kind of particular personality—aside from the Porter. So what's that all about? What's he writing if he's not writing characters?
Part of the reason for doing it was to suspend the idea that we were going to actually do this—and give ourselves the space and time to simply respond to any impulses that occurred to us. So we liberated ourselves from the idea that we needed to get anywhere, produce anything, achieve anything. For a long period we were simply involved in a loose conversation about whatever this particular text brought up for us. We'd talk about our dreams, ideas that occurred to us, resonances that came off a particular word, design, music—anything, really, and sort of allowed it to filter of its own accord, through time, to what it is we've ended up with. The idea was that there were no boundaries about this piece, that there's a focal point to our lives, and that's the play of Macbeth, and that will have entered at some level into our deepest unconscious. That's a way of saying the play itself speaks to the deepest unconscious. And that's where its power comes from. Our job has been to allow the play to go down in there and see what's growing and see what images it produces. They've not always been obvious ones. The way to get at those is to remove the censorship that we might normally put on our conversation about ourselves and say, "I don't know what it means, but this is what I dreamt." And the job of the other person in that situation is to listen without censorship and go, "Oh, that's interesting. Let's follow that. Does it relate to anything in the script? Does it produce an image? Does it produce a musical idea?"
Early on I had a dream about a Panasonic answering machine. It recurred as an idea, much later on in the process, as we were talking about the disembodiment of sound. You came in with a book about how sound has become disembodied through the invention of machines that do that, and what relationship that has to the human soul: Where's the soul if the sound can go on after death?
Preston: I just realized one of the points you made, actually it was kind of the reverse. Oftentimes the processes one is involved in, you really are working on the play. In some elemental level, not consciously, I think it happened that the process became one where the play worked on us, and we maybe just offered ourselves to the play. We of course engaged in multiple ways that are very recognizable: trying to analyze the piece, to see what is going on in it, or to see what indications there are. You were talking about disembodiment. There's certainly dissection in the play. It seems Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in different ways almost dissect themselves. It leads one to think about separate consciousness for one's hand as opposed to one's eye—what one sees—and how something enters general consciousness.
Dillane: In the analysis of the text, all the normal words come up that I'm sure all the academics would write about—like "sight," "speak." They felt as if they were the ends of threads that were leading us into another consciousness—part of the process of appreciating how much we were trying to penetrate a different kind of consciousness. That leads us back to the point you made earlier on about modern man and how there's this sense that the writer and Macbeth are standing on the edge of the precipice at this particular point, looking into a world without God, to put it very simply, before all the ideas that we use to hold ourselves up now have been formulated—like personality, character. There's simply this chaos into which Macbeth has the courage to look.
Preston: Clearly [the voice of the play] is something everybody understands in the sense that it is in a verse form, and everyone speaks in that verse form. That's something that is aesthetic; that is the voice of the artist, the voice of Shakespeare. In each moment, we're looking for the text to be engaged by the audience in the most vivid way possible. Sometimes it requires a change of physicality or a change in the voice, and sometimes it doesn't and is nevertheless clear and effective. You assess it; it feels right when it's being played. The piece speaks to you very directly and tells you what's needed. I think one of the things we've tried to do is to listen as effectively as we can to the piece itself, to see what it's telling us, rather than what inherited wisdom about the piece might be telling us or what we know about the piece. Clearly you're in the most direct contact with that because you're embodying the work.
Dillane: I think there's an instinct about whether you're telling the story or not. It's one of those mysteries you sort of get a feel for—for whether you need to let the audience know that at this moment it's Banquo speaking rather than Macbeth, or where it doesn't matter. Sometimes you would be engaged in a process of trying to persuade an audience that it doesn't matter—to give up their requirement to know who is speaking, in the interest of something else. We'll find out if that works. BSW
"Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy)," produced by CalArts at the REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m., variable schedule. Nov. 24-Dec. 12. $8-40. (213) 237-2800.