Calixto Bieito (whose Macbeth was recently performed at the Barbican in both Spanish and Catalan, and is now playing in Barcelona) says his aim is ‘simply to make the audience feel as if they have never seen the play before’. In preparing his interpretation of a classic text, Calixto engages with both the culture of the original audiences and with that of his own present-day audience. ‘First’, he explains, ‘I make a big study about the author, the historical context, what he was trying to do with his audience and with the piece. Second, I am trying to get the essence of my analysis of the author’s message, and bring it into our life today, as close to my audience as I can’. And so he not only updates the setting, but incorporates modern behaviour into the performance.
Calixto doesn’t show images of war in Macbeth – an intensely relevant theme today but one which is, however, apart from the daily lives of most theatregoers. Instead the world he creates is domestic. The home of the Macbeths is the centre of the action and it is a gaudy and materialistic home that embraces the fruits of global capitalism. Coca Cola is the drink of choice when this extended family of Scottish nobility is not swigging wine from the bottle; and one of the Macduff children (who seem to be ever present on the stage – feeding the envy of the childless Macbeths) is bludgeoned to death with a Coke bottle. These images speak to us directly. They may be comically exaggerated but the excesses they portray are surely familiar to a large proportion of young theatre-goers, and the audience I saw at the Barbican was not the usual mix of retired season-ticket-holders and American tourists.
Materialism concerned William Shakespeare’s society as well as our own. After the first murder, Macbeth – like Claudius – becomes increasingly preoccupied with the payoff between worldly power and the loss of the soul, and it is a theme that the poet explores enigmatically in Sonnet 146: ‘Why so large cost, having so short a lease, / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?’. In the era of fantastic courtly masques costing one thousand times the salary of an actor, and ridiculously extravagant fashions in dress and lifestyle, the question ‘why?’ was left to the poets.
If modern productions of Renaissance plays are to be more than museum-pieces, then it befalls the directors to work as cultural translators. They must find ways to reveal those meanings that would otherwise lie buried, beneath four hundred years of changes to the cultural charges attached to ideas and things. It is not that the stories, characters or even the language of William are particularly impenetrable to us today, but simply that we are blind to those issues that were most important to people who went to the theatre in early Jacobean London, and blind to the assumptions that they brought with them. Even if we have a scholarly understanding of those cultural differences, we cannot embrace them as our own.
Working in translation, Calixto is liberated on more than one level. He is free to make the play and its language immediate. For Anglophones, the familiarity of William Shakespeare’s poetry often heightens our pleasure in its music but it can also obscure its meaning. Speaking famous lines in another language refreshes them and renews the potency of their literal significance. Hearing Macbeth (Mingo Ràfols) contemplate the interminable future of ‘mañana y mañana y mañana’ I was struck by the emptiness he faces and his dilemma seemed to me to be a new one; one that had been forged in the previous two hours and not one that I had truly empathised with before. I did indeed feel that I had never seen this play before.