What happens when a German theatre hires a French Canadian choreographer to direct a play by Shakespeare? Something very Canadian. Dave St-Pierre’s staging of Macbeth at the Schauspiel Frankfurt is, in essence, a two-hour movement piece. The theatre, and some reviews, are trying to sell it as a synthesis of text-based theatre and dance/movement-based performance, but that’s a very generous stretch: St-Pierre has retained perhaps 30 lines of Shakespeare – 30 lines of any text whatsoever – and those lines might as well have been cut, too. This is not a production especially interested in text, or speech, at all; nor is it a show that really relies on “acting” in any recognizable sense: these performers don’t represent characters, nor do they present themselves representing characters, nor do they present characters (or whatever other definition of what “acting” is or may be you want to pick). What the show is about is bodies moving in space in a way that suggests emotional states – no more than that, but also no less.

In itself, that is a perfectly fine artistic undertaking, of course. Does it do anything of interest with or to Shakespeare’s play? Sort of. If you know the play really well – really, really well – St-Pierre’s show, advertised as a “bastard of Dave St-Pierre’s and William Shakespeare’s,” may serve as a clever performative commentary on at least some aspects of the text. If you don’t, I don’t know what the show’s impact might be. It’s certainly admirably un-Anglo in its total disregard for narrative: along with most of the text, most of the plot of the play has disappeared. Instead, what St-Pierre offers us is a series of violent and/or intimate encounters – basically, versions of the witchcraft scenes, a version of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s first scene, and all the deaths. Added to the latter are extended scenes of mourning that constitute the production’s most remarkable intervention, supplying as they do what is so shockingly missing from Shakespeare’s text.

If one thought that all performance does or should do is interpret a play, one would have to describe those scenes as radical departures from the Macbeth Shakespeare wrote: a play in which hardly anyone spends much time grieving the loss of friends or family, though the fate of one’s country is worth weeping over; a play in which the manly response to trauma is anger and violent action, not tears. However, in focusing as much as he does on the aftermath of death, St-Pierre finds a way of precisely highlighting the emotional lacunae of his source text – as long as his audience knows that text well enough. Thus, we get to see Malcolm, here a daughter rather than a son (Lisa Stiegler) curl up against her father’s dead body, laid out on a wheeled wooden board; we then get to watch her spinning, pulling the corpse-bearing dolly on ropes in a circle around her; she then hands the ropes to Banquo, who keeps the dolly spinning, with Malcolm running after it, trying but never quite managing to reconnect; and then we get to watch Malcolm, the dolly gone, still running, running, and eventually hurling herself, over and over, after her dead father. It’s a very long scene, and a relentlessly repetitive one, and in its visual metaphor for the work of mourning, it directly contradicts the words in which Shakespeare has Malcolm describe his emotional state at the very same moment in the play: “Our tears are not yet brewed,” Donalbain says; and his brother answers “Nor our strong sorrow upon the foot of motion.” St-Pierre’s Malcolm’s sorrow is nothing if not afoot – this Malcolm can’t stop running. “The foot of motion” is all she has.


There are plenty of other scenes that are similarly clever, carefully crafted, unafraid to take however much time they may need (and often, more). Macduff gets to dance a macabre, distressingly hopeful pas-de-deux with his wife’s corpse; Lady Macbeth, wearing a massive black hooped skirt, wobbles on for her last entrance as if barely in control of her own movement – only to reveal that her skirt is packed with the bodies of five – five! – of the “demons” that populate the stage throughout (and do all of the killing); Macbeth, coming on to fight Macduff trailing a small army of white floppy adult-sized dolls that keeps growing as he runs in his own circle, puffing and panting, and ultimately being hoist up into the fly dragging the dolls behind him and turning them into a mountain of corpses in the process. Macbeth, almost uniquely, doesn’t grieve or mourn: the weight of the bodies leaves no energy for emotional reflection or investment. In this, too, St-Pierre’s reading of the play is acute. And sonically, the show takes a clear cue from Shakespeare as well: it starts with someone knocking on the iron safety curtain (Hecate, as it turns out, not Macduff), and variants of that sound echo through the production – most violently and loudly as things draw to a close, in an electronic base that booms so loudly the entire theatre vibrates.

Lady Macbeth (Constanze Becker), her skirt, and the demons (freed)

Lady Macbeth (Constanze Becker), her skirt, and the demons (freed)

Finally, for all his focus on creating compelling (if demanding) images, St-Pierre makes no effort to disguise that these images are created — he explicitly assembles their elements in front of our eyes, often laboriously so. What set there is on the almost empty, massively cavernous stage consists mostly of plain, metal-legged wooden tables that are shifted from scene to scene by a swarm of stage hands in black hoodies. Before the Macbeths’ first encounter, those minions cover nearly the entire stage in those tables, building a kind of maze out of them; and after the scene, they take them away again. It all takes time. Those tables prove wonderfully flexible – they get flipped on end to serve as projection screens; they get flipped over to become a version of Birnham Wood; they get stacked, legs up, to form a small tower with battlements; a row of them becomes the path through the forest on which Banquo dies (and then, with one Macbeth on either end, that path becomes the long banquet table); one of them stood on end becomes Lady Macduff’s bed, in which she is murdered; four of them stood on end and arranged in a square become her tomb, our of which a flower-bed of hands soon sprouts. And yet, they also remain plain wooden tables with metal legs shifted around a huge, gloomy stage by helpers in squeaking trainers, sometimes for minutes at a time. St-Pierre quite deliberately challenges the audience’s patience by making us watch what is, essentially, set-up: it’s not quite like watching paint dry, but at times, it comes close. He’s not just showing us images – he also insists on showing us what those images are made out of, and how they are produced (if anyone missed the importance of lighting design to the show, St-Pierre makes sure that’s obvious too, by flying most of the grid down in one scene, suspending elements that are bigger than some of the performers just above their heads – and then pulling it back up into the fly).

There’s a trailer, too:

So. There is a lot to admire here. It’s unquestionably a rigorously put-together performance. It may be a “bastardized” Macbeth, but it’s a compelling commentary on the play. Why, then, my trepidations?

Two reasons. For one thing, I think the show wastes the talent St-Pierre had at his disposal. To see Constanze Becker, one of the most captivating actors of her generation, stripped almost entirely of her voice, is painful: I would have loved to see what she could have done with the part of Lady Macbeth. Instead, I got to see her glide on, ponderously, in a gorgeous costume, intone a few lines, and reveal two homunculi under her skirts; I got to see her twirl around a maze a tables with Macbeth; and I got to see her struggle with a gang of demons and die. Not a terrible theatrical experience, to be sure – but a very reduced version of what I am confident she could have done. That’s not a baseless certainty either: in Michael Thalheimer’s Medea two years ago, she in fact did combine a very tightly choreographed physical performance with a shattering vocal performance – stuck on a ledge for the entire show, she still commanded the whole stage, and the theatre beyond it. St-Pierre only allows her to access half her actorly arsenal at best. Whereas under Thalheimer’s direction restraint was productive, in St-Pierre’s staging it is merely, well, limiting. To varying degrees, the same is true for all the other performers: as impressive as some of their physical work was, and as compelling as the images could be once they emerged, the entire exercise felt to me needlessly limited, presenting actors cut off from more than half of their expressive capabilities without any real commensurate payoff.

Secondly, for all its “bastardizing” of Shakespeare, this is actually a very safe show, precisely because it shies away from the text as well as from any engagement with its characters that goes beyond physical symbolic action. In staging not a production of Macbeth but a movement-based adaptation of elements of the play, St-Pierre bypasses the challenge of grappling with the text: instead, he has created something inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy but recognizably, undeniably, and reassuringly distinct from it. It’s easy to imagine this piece being staged in Canada – precisely because it wears its credentials as an adaptation so unmistakably on its sleeve, and because it inhabits so very comfortably a clearly demarcated type of performance distinct from the type of performance the text would “demand.” Of course this isn’t Shakespeare: it’s a movement piece. Shakespeare didn’t write movement pieces; he wrote plays, and this is not a “play.” In that sense, the show keeps a familiarly safe distance from Macbeth: it never risks actual transgression.

At heart, these two objections are aspects of the same problem: in one sense, the production creates limitations for its performers; in another, it creates limitations for theatre itself. And in both ways, it brings to bear a model and an approach to performance that I see at work all too often and all too pervasively at home, but that seems to me quite alien to German stages. There is no division between physical expression and vocal expression, between text-based theatre and devised performance, between character-driven work and work focused on images or metaphors in contemporary German theatre: any production of any play can draw on any and all of those aspects of performative art, can combine them and shuffle them in ways that would seem jarring, even unacceptable, in most Anglo-American contexts. That hybridity is precisely what makes German theatre so exciting. Instead of making the most of his actors’ expertise in performative hybridity, though, St-Pierre largely imposes the categorical divisions between types of performance familiar from Anglo-American theatre onto those actors, and on the production as a whole. And that’s why to me the show, for all its occasional brilliance, feels limited, even decontextualized, and ultimately boxed in.

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