Shakespeare’s play Macbeth has its roots in real events from two periods in history. There was a king called Macbeth who ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057. Shakespeare probably read the history of his reign in Holinshed’s Chronicles, and then, as he so often did with his sources, transformed it for the stage, shaping chronology into drama, and extracting from written names, living people. And then lying over the whole play like a great shadow, is the political and religious climate of his own time, the witch-hunts of the early 17th Century and the obsession of England’s new King James I (James VI of Scotland) with - demonology.
Amongst Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is uniquely simple and linear. It can be summed up in a sentence. A successful army general, spurred on by his ambitious wife, murders his King, seizes his throne, maintains that throne through ever more terrible violence - and is ultimately slaughtered himself.
But into that stark tale Shakespeare infuses two elements that make Macbeth one of his greatest tragedies. The first, dominating the play from beginning to end is the world of witchcraft, embodied in the three Weird Sisters. Their constant presence, subtly and cruelly infecting every space, every mind, every choice raises all sorts of questions about the nature of evil, its origin, attraction, and ultimate direction. The second is a black love story: the corruption and desperate ruin of a profound life-long partnership.
Amongst Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Macbeth is uniquely suited to choreographic representation. The simple plot and absence of circumstantial or incidental detail mean that the story of the play is easily grasped, and the focus is always on the inner experience and ambiguity of the main characters, and the primitive, infected, mutating world of the Weird Sisters.
In Macbeth the natural and supernatural become one. The desolate world of the witches poisons the ordinary world. The supernatural pushes, seeps, or is invited in. The characters are mistaken, confused, unsure. The landscapes are shadowy and shifting, and nothing is what it seems: “Fair is foul and foul is fair”.
It’s this experience that the Ballet Contemporáneo de Burgos set out to convey in this new version of Macbeth, through a mixture of dance, music, visual images and text. This is not a narrative representation. The intention is the capture in dance the broad sweep of the tale, the emotional and poetic movement of the play.
Alberto Estebañiz’s production, based on an adaptation by David Freeborough, and directed by international award-winning choreographer Amaury Lebrun, features the dancers of the BCBu and guests former Hamburg Ballet and CND soloist Emilia Jovanovic. It follows Estebañiz’s two previous highly innovative incursions into dance-theatre, Los Girasoles and Pielescallar, both of which construct their action around powerful poetic texts. Macbeth takes a few key lines from Shakespeare’s original text and builds around these a unified, varied, uncompromising and beautiful work of contemporary dance.
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
I've been obsessed with Macbeth since I was 16 and had a small part in a production at school. At one stroke, I fell in love with Shakespeare and the theatre, and I don't think a day has passed since then without some phrase or image from Macbeth crossing my mind. It's not Shakespeare's most profound work - my own choice for that would probably be king Lear - nor the most universal, in that Macbeth's experience is fairly uncommon. But it is perhaps his most mysterious, the darkest, and it resists a cause and effect analysis or simple moral judgements. it's a cliche to point out that Macbeth is a criminal, and that in the last analyisis he takes his own decisions, more or less influenced by Lady Macbeth. And it is not false to say this, just incomplete. There is a world of shadows around the protagoinsts in this drama, in the whole land they inhabit, that should never come near the light, that are not supposed to let themselves be seen, but they do, and their existence and the limits of their power are deeply worrying. From the first draft of the adaptation I knew that we needed the three structures to symbolise and give form to this world of spirits and witches: metallic, shifting, twisted, like forest trees and machines of war simultaneously, hollow, like abandoned homes...
For me Lady Macbeth is a perfect example of Elizabethan feminism! Ambitious, smart, and beautiful, she knows that the only way up in her world is through using men. She is not evil, but courageous and ambitious, for herself and for her husband. It was fabulous trying to show how she can be seen as a heroine not the wicked villain. And it is a privilege to show her despair and loss when it all turns out wrong. The power of the play carries you to places that can't be explored in the normal world.
In Macbeth we find not gloom, but blackness: the evil is not relative, but absolute… This evil, being absolute and therefore alien to man, is in essence shown as inhuman and supernatural…Macbeth is fantastical and imaginative beyond other tragedies. Difficulty is increased by that implicit blurring of effects, that palling darkness, that overcasts plot, technique, style. The persons of the play are themselves groping. Yet we are left with an overpowering knowledge of suffocating, conquering evil, and fixed by the basilisk eye of a nameless terror.
G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire
There was a gap between imaginary murder and the real thing, room for Macbeth to turn back – only he realises that too late. And here we move beyond what is ‘said’ by the poetry, into the drama’s non-verbal regions instead. For why is it too late? Why is it that from the first meeting with the witches the murder is going to happen – in some deep of Macbeth’s nature, it already has, and he has yielded to that suggestion by which he is both terrified and entranced?... Macbeth’s struggle is not with his conscience, but with himself in a different sense: his identity: who he is; and he is the man who is Glamis, and Cawdor, and will be what he is promised, King.
Robin Grove, Focus on Macbeth