We Are Groundlings, All
It’s three days later, and I’m still thinking about Hydeware Theatre’s outdoor production of Macbeth. It’s a very good production, a smart and honest production with a few problems – but I don’t know that I did it justice in a short review. A three-actor version of a Shakespearean play is a bold decision – there’s so much that could go wrong, and a poorly-handled production of Shakespeare is excruciating. And there were definitely elements of Richard Strelinger’s direction that gave me pause. Namely, the lackluster fight scenes, and the use of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of” as a soundtrack for the climactic fight between Macduff and Macbeth. RATM is such a cheesy, short-hand version of “angry political band” that the music is actually offensive, and not in an “I’m outraged!” kinda way; it’s more of a “You could cut this suburban angst with a paper knife” kind of eye-rolling outrage.
But that’s such a small, small portion of the evening.
And I sorta see what Strelinger was going for there: Two families locked in a death-struggle, one fighting for personal revenge and honor, one fighting for self-preservation and to desperately maintain a position of stolen power. The high school term paper argument will be that Macduff is nominally fighting for a noble cause, Macbeth is fighting for ignoble reasons, and a B-plus is practically guaranteed. And yet both of them are willing to kill to achieve their personal goals: Does the reason justify the action? That’s your A paper right there. What the RATM song rather artlessly discusses -- "What are we killing in the name of?" -- is what Shakespeare’s lovely and nasty little play holds up to the light and examines with profound intelligence and, better still, illuminates those same questions with a preternatural understanding of human nature.
And what Strelinger’s cast – Brian Hyde, Ken Haller and Ember Hyde – bring to the evening is that human nature. All of them are excellent at quickly and subtly crafting a character through posture and voice, although the first twenty or so minutes of the play severely undercut their individual talents as they have to rapidly cycle through characters. And Ember Hyde is truly chilling as Lady Macbeth. After Duncan has been killed, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (Haller) have a scene together; Haller plays Macbeth’s doubts about the murder with a hesitating, stutter-stepping regret – and behind him on the stairs of the Whitaker Pavilion, Hyde lounges casually, weighing the still-bloody crown in her hand, turning it to examine it in the light, completely entranced by the power contained in the golden symbol. It is a far more evocative indictment of the seduction of power than anything in the RATM song, and Hyde manifests it all through a sly smile, a wistful look and a slouch. It’s just a beautifully staged and acted scene, and a memorable piece of theatre.
But this brings me to my other doubt about Strelinger’s use of the song: Am I over-thinking this thing? It’s easy to do with Shakespeare. His work is the domain of academia and intelligentsia and a couple of other “-ia” that all imply deep thoughts and tweed blazers with elbow patches. Because that’s who Shakespeare was writing for, right? It’s a conversation between the adults, and you’re still sitting at the kids’ table, just trying to keep up, yeah?
Shakespeare wrote for everybody – he had to, because there was never anything good to watch on TV when he was alive, so the theatre was where everybody went for their entertainment. If you were a working class yob, you paid your penny and you stood on the ground in front of the stage and you watched Macbeth just like the scholars and the gentry. And Shakespeare was definitely in the entertainment biz – he inserted comedic elements for these groundlings, and sword fights, and ribald double entendres about sword fights, and if the upper crust got the jokes, so much the better.
But this boisterous, everybody in the house element is mostly lost these days. Shakespeare has become Theatre, and it’s no place for the groundling.
Strelinger and Co. have made room for the groundlings in their Macbeth, however – and that’s not just because we’re all spread out on the asphalt in front of the stage eating and drinking in true 17th century-audience fashion. Ember Hyde plays the drunken Porter with gusty delight, leaving the stage to venture into the crowd. She roams freely, accusing people of various faults, then cries out the first of her “knock knocks.” And when a few people in the audience respond with a faint, almost embarrassed “Who’s there?,” she wags a finger at them and grins while delivering the next line. Every repetition of “knock knock” brings a louder response from the crowd, and more laughter, and suddenly what is a confusing monologue on the page is a marvelous bit of comedy. That’s a sweetmeat for the groundlings right there.
But there’s another in the fight scenes – yes, the same ones I think are too slow and stilted. The Whitaker Theatre is also known as Tower Grove Park's Pool Pavilion, and this being early September, kids are still splashing in the fountain on the back side of the stage during the show. And there’s a boisterous volleyball game going on to stage right. A couple times during the play, someone would come wandering around the Pavilion to see what we were all watching.
One of those someone’s was a kid who inched along the retaining wall that butts up against the pavilion stairs, which are doing double duty as the stage. He sees Ember Hyde wearing black sunglasses and holding a pair of matched sai, in character as Ross, the assassin Macbeth sends out to get rid of Banquo (Brian Hyde). That kid parked his butt as soon as he saw her, then waited around to find out what she was going to do. Another kid, even younger, crept along the wall to sit next to him. How long can Shakespeare hold the attention of a nine-year old and a five-year old? About five minutes, or two minutes for each sai and one for the shades; then the pair wandered back into the evening.
But when Banquo and Ross have their showdown, both of those kids come running back to the same spot on the wall, drawn by the heavy-metal guitar riff that scores the duel. The older one has a can of Pringles with him, and he never takes his eyes off the fight as he’s shoveling chips into his mouth. And why would he? Banquo’s swinging a goddamn battle ax around his head, and Ross is sticking him left and right with his own dagger after losing the sai. The boys actually creep so close to the stage after the fight, somebody from Hydeware has to come out and quietly ask them to scoot back a bit.
But this time, they stick around for quite a while.
When Banquo’s ghost appears, swathed in black and wearing a hood, the smaller kid ducks down behind his brother; big brother claps when the hood is removed and it’s clear the guy he just saw stabbed to death is now a ghost. And they’re both still perched on that wall during the final confrontation, as raptly fascinated by the outcome of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy as I am – although I don’t know that either of them finds Rage Against the Machine as trite as I do.
You know what? Fuck it. I’ll accept the song as a daring choice on Strelinger’s part. He didn’t put it in there for the reviewer – he put it in there for the groundlings. And the fact that he was thinking for the groundlings, that’s about as brilliant a move as I’ve seen a director pull this year. I’ve seen better fight scenes (Jason Cannon and Brian Peters in Hamlet have the best fight of the year so far – and I doubt that anyone’s gonna take that away from them), but I don’t know that I’ve seen a fight scene so true to the spirit of why the fight is in the play. Strelinger’s choice of weapons, the sunglasses, and yes, even the damn song, are what Shakespeare was all about: Popular appeal. That may have been the first stage combat those kids have ever seen, and it’ll probably stay with them for quite a while – just like my memory of Ember’s languid, self-satisfied Lady Macbeth toying with the kingdom’s essence in the aftermath of cold-blooded murder.
A lasting memory is a fantastic gift for a director to give an audience member – and Strelinger is just handing them out left and right.
So the song? Good choice.
Hydeware’s doing Macbeth on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (September 14 through 16) at Tower Grove Park. If you go see it – and I urge you to go see it – try to see it with new eyes. Or maybe just with young eyes. And don’t be shy about throwing a few bucks in Hydeware’s collection baskets – the popular appeal is still measured in dollars, just like in Shakespeare’s day.