Every production of a Shakespearean text, no matter how antiquarian or heretical in approach, exhibits what I like to call the “classical paradox.” This paradox rests on two principles: (1) that our classical heritage must be preserved, lest it be forgotten, and (2) that this heritage lives on only through continuous expansion and reinvention, even desecration. In the fall of 2016, two world-renowned directors took opposite tacks to the same destination, staging violent resurrections of Shakespearean drama by doing profound violence to Shakespeare-as-literature.
Since his company’s founding in 1981, director-playwright-artist-designer Romeo Castellucci has become known for his Wagnerian control over all aspects of the theatrical apparatus, from textual “excavation” (his term for the adaptation of classical texts) and visual design, to his choice of ideal body-types who perform the choreography of his installation-like performance structures. These can range from those with severe obesity (such as the 528-pound Cicero of 1997’s Giulio Cesare, from Shakespeare’s play) to those bearing post-surgical scars. More subtly, the work of Socíetas Raffaelo Sanzio ranged to include performers from above and below the human strata, including animals and robotized technology. Like a painter, his works are better understood when the elements within the frame are read on their own terms. Not coincidentally, Castellucci’s pronouncements have tended toward gnomic aphorism, while his works have tended toward extremes of sensation, as deafening industrial drones (scored by longtime collaborator Scott Gibbons) and stygian atmospheric effects lead audiences into a mystic chasm.
In Julius Caesar: Spared Parts, a “reduction” of the 1997 work that first brought the company to international attention, Castellucci incorporated performers from the original work into a shorter, triptych structure, thus stripping Shakespeare’s play down into a series of literal spare parts. Taking on the playwright’s work most consumed with the power of rhetoric, Castellucci pried loose the play’s most rhetorically powerful speeches from their narrative frame, pairing them with similarly abstracted or physically reduced performers. Through Castellucci’s engrossing deployment of an endoscopic camera lodged inside a throat cavity, the Tribune addressing the crowd as “you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” was reduced to a vocal chord minus a body. Caesar–“tired Caesar,” or perhaps “great Caesar’s ghost”–appeared as an elderly old man in a blood-red toga, shuffling downstage with thunderous steps before conducting a silent orchestra, reduced to a gesturing body without its accompanying triumphalist text. Most disturbingly, Castellucci presented Marc Antony’s funeral oration savagely unadorned, placing it within a literally voiceless voice, the mouth of an actor whose larynx had been removed due to throat cancer.
“I am no orator,” Marc Antony says. “I have neither the wit, nor the words […] nor the power of speech to stir men’s blood.” Turning Shakespeare inside out, much like his performers’ bodies, Castellucci refashioned both as rhetorical vessels. In Spared Parts, motifs were at once gestural and dramatic. Meanings were sought and grasped through plastic effects as well as through language, sensationalized as well as expressed.
Rather than diminishing the power of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, Castellucci’s strategies served ironically to magnify it. In each scenic “reduction,” the physical flesh was exposed as weak—excavated, entombed, macerated—but Shakespeare’s language remained sublime, a terrible and deathless realm beyond the stage, experienced all the more strongly for being contained in concentrated doses. Forsaking the logical causality of Shakespeare’s linear narrative for a theater of plastic images and effects, Castellucci shined a bright light on the blood-curdling power of political speech, as well as its capacity to strip us of our reason.
Performed in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the middle of the campaign that would see Donald Trump elected to the office of the Presidency, the significance of Spared Parts as a warning against the dangers of political rhetoric could not have been clearer, despite Castellucci’s penchant for runic mysticism. In Spared Parts’ most cryptic theatrical crux, performers led a horse, onstage adjacent to the seated Caesar figure, and painted its side with seeming nonsense letters: “MENE TEKEL PERES.” In fact, they are Castellucci’s gloss on a divine homily, the mythic “writings on the wall” that appear, drawn by an unseen hand, at Belshazzar’s Feast in the Book of Daniel. The writing, Castellucci appeared to be saying, is on the wall, to be ignored at our own peril. Perhaps this also explains the somnambulist mien of the performers, who trudged zombielike from station to station. We keep burying Caesar’s ghost, but he shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon.
Whereas Castellucci’s work functions in a proud European avant-garde lineage that stretches back through Artaud to Wagner, Brett Bailey and his company, Third World Bunfight, hail from the sudden explosion of art and culture in post-Apartheid South Africa. Both offer theatrical experiences that resist traditional conjugation, but Castellucci tends to avoid explicit political comment, preferring the experiential abyss to concrete meanings.
By contrast, Brett Bailey makes works that conform to his company’s name: a “bunfight” is South African vernacular for a heated, typically inter-cultural conflict. His preferred method is to juxtapose performance techniques both high and low, European and African. He has drawn criticism–and garnered a reputation as the enfant terrible of the South African arts scene–for staging sacred Xhosa rituals, including live animal sacrifice and zombie exorcisms, alongside ironic postmodern idioms such as drag, parody, and kitsch. Perhaps most strikingly, Bailey has drawn criticism from the older generation of South African Black Arts leaders for his status as a white, male South African of European descent heading a company of predominantly black performers, many of them from townships and tribal descent, and lacking traditional training. Somewhat paradoxically, his work–which is very well curated aesthetically, despite its ambiguous politics–has become increasingly visible on the European festival market.
Despite this, Bailey seems to have reached a breaking point with his most recent work, Exhibit B, which was the subject of protests in Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris, and had its London leg at the Barbican Centre canceled. Reviving the colonial “human zoo” format, Bailey depicted, among other sights, a half-naked African woman chained to an officer’s bed for sexual amusement, as well as a real-life refugee handcuffed to an airplane as narration informed viewers of his impending deportation. Accused of racism by protesters, it may be more accurate to describe Bailey’s work as unflinchingly racial, implicating viewer and performer alike in modern social evils we might wish to avoid.
Macbeth, Bailey’s first work since Exhibit B, emerged directly out of his research on colonial atrocities in the Congo, which continues in the form of a massive refugee diaspora to this day. Taking a “sharp machete” to Verdi’s libretto, Bailey whittled the work down to 100 minutes while grafting on a narrative of colonial atrocity. The central conceit, like Exhibit B, was that of a restaging. Seizing on the curious historical fact that an amateur group staged Verdi’s Macbeth in the Belgian Congo between 1935 and 1945, Bailey imagined what would happen were modern refugees to find the group’s costume trunk and mount a new production.
As if eager to epater les bourgeoisie, Bailey started his Macbeth with character portraits designed to implicate the predominantly white, moneyed, western audience sitting in Philadelphia’s Prince Theatre. These were, of course, the Witches, refashioned by Bailey as white men in pith helmets and suits, handkerchiefs drawn tight over the performers’ black faces. Instead of metaphysical apparitions, they represented the western “Hexagon” corporation, assisting Macbeth with his military coup in order to have a stake in the tantalite mines that provide the diamond-hard surfaces of our phones and laptop screens. The projection design underlined this point through discordant juxtapositions, alternating between playful, day-glo African iconography and stark black-and-white photographs of the women and children workers in the mines. Bailey’s post-colonial world, one often invisible to western audiences, is one in whose crimes against humanity we are unconsciously complicit. Halfway through the action, in the Witches’ second meeting with Macbeth, their cauldron became a sack of American dollar bills, the three apparitions appearing as digital projections from their laptops.
Similarly, Bailey positioned his Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the flipside of this post-colonial dialectic: a power-hungry African strongman and his mammon-worshipping wife, both of them comfortable with the countless deaths of their countrymen and women. Cutting down or excising most of the supporting cast, the Macbeths took center stage as soloists alongside Banquo, Macbeth’s friend whose murder occupies the middle of the action. Into the remaining dramaturgical space, Bailey introduced documentary and historical elements, such as a background chorus comprised of refugees, and title-cards informing us of real-life refugees and their grim fates.
In the latter stages of the work, this recognition of historical atrocity became even more explicit, as Bailey bombarded spectators with images of children’s bodies amid a devastated landscape. As one member of the chorus of dead women became Macduff, putting on an African strongman’s costume similar to Macbeth’s, a projection informed the audience of a rebellion led by the Hutus and the resulting civil war. Rather than serving as a dramaturgical restoration of order, then, Macbeth’s downfall followed the fatalistic progression of contemporary history, another strongman puppet elevated by the western powers-that-be.
Alongside such mordant themes, Bailey continued to indulge his tendency toward low forms, bathos, and kitsch. Where Castellucci placed Shakespeare’s language in mangled or reduced bodies, Bailey attacked it outright, subverting it into rhetorical muck along with his history of atrocities. “A fucking horrible beautiful day!” Macbeth sang at his first entrance, making mincemeat out of Shakespeare’s elegant oxymoron: “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” When new of his promotion to Thane of Cawdor arrived, Macbeth similarly shouted “Fuck! The Witches told the truth!” And Banquo’s Ghost was accompanied by a simple, ejaculatory “Fuck!” In his crowning act of rhetorical and theatrical terrorism, Bailey transformed Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech, perhaps Shakespeare’s lyric and existential high point, into a defeated press conference, with Macbeth monotoning, “I trusted in devils and here I lie […] The law of the jungle.” The cumulative effect of these transformations–all of them centering on the ambiguous tragic figure of Macbeth–was to deny him the dignity and philosophical complexity of Shakespeare’s character. Bailey’s Macbeth is, instead, an atrocious figure, a monster created by a history of atrocities, and perpetuating it.
Other ironic degradations took the form of visual puns. Bailey introduced Lady Macbeth at a laundrette amid projections of Drano, in a less-than-subtle nod to “Out, damn spot.” She wore a succession of loud costumes that evoked sexual aggressiveness and black-power imagery, including a doo-rag, a leopard-print skirt, and bright red gloves and boots that she used to grab her breasts and grind on Macbeth’s lap at his coronation feast. (Macbeth, for his own sake, traded in his AK-47 and military beret for a red hat making a black power fist.) Bailey staged Malcolm’s funeral as an open-casket live telecast, state funeral as megachurch infomercial, complete with gaudy crucifix. In the production’s central set piece, Banquo’s murder, Bailey opted for disco maximalism, Banquo soloing underneath a disco ball, his four assassins swinging their machetes like militant members of the Four Tops. At such moments, it was unclear whether the audience was meant to feel implicated in historical atrocity or celebratory at this uninhibited display of cheerful, brightly colored African Nationalism.
Unlike Castellucci, whose Spared Parts worked primarily through a radical paring away, Bailey’s approach was a bifocal one, a simultaneous heightening into the realm of opera and a lowering into vulgarity, obscenity, and atrocity. His Macbeth constituted a startlingly successful appropriation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, opening up neglected corridors of history as well as an entire new continent for classical interpretation. Both directors, through doing selective violence to Shakespeare’s works-as-literature, ironically suggested new methods for their continued theatrical importance. Emptied of the famous Shakespeare music, the works opened themselves up as newly revitalized texts, still potent in their ability to probe into the deep recesses of our collective imaginations and the waking nightmares of contemporary history. Through their selective dismemberments to theShakespearean corpus, Castellucci and Bailey perversely illustrated how much life is left in the old Bard.