By Liesl Tommy
When I tackle a classic, I must find why that play is relevant to a 21st-century audience. I also have to find what resonates personally. I am after all an artist and directing is a form of self-expression.
I’m from South Africa originally. I grew up during the apartheid era, during a time when we fought for and grieved for our country in equal measure. My work and analysis of art cannot help but be filtered through this experience.
As I began my pre-production on Macbeth, I came to understand that the personal cost of political chaos or instability is a theme central to the story of Macbeth. This is also a theme which resonated deeply for me.
I then thought about the following questions in regards to the spiraling chaos of Macbeth. Who are the Witches to me? Who benefits from a civil war? What is ambition? What is marriage? What are children? And why didn’t I know how much grief was expressed in this play?
I thought about who benefits from creating catastrophic political instability. Who benefits from whispering into the ears of an ambitious general that their time has come, that they should murder for power? In my world, growing up on the continent of Africa, that answer is obvious: Western interests intent on our resources always find a way to install a corrupt puppet and during the spiraling chaos enjoy untold profit from our water, oil, diamonds, coltan and so on.
This paradigm of chaos creation exists not only in the past or even only in the developing world—if anything, foreign interference has loomed very large in the American psyche of late.
In this production of Macbeth all these worlds collide. Our designers—first responders, as I call them, because they have to develop concrete design before I do—have done a masterful job of interpreting the concepts to create a frame for this story. This astounding cast, led by the remarkable Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth, has helped me illuminate what this play has to say about power and manipulation, resistance and survival—beyond and inside our borders. I am very excited about doing this production in this place, at this moment. I view Macbeth as Shakespeare’s great cautionary tale, because over and over in the play he gives words to the personal cost of political chaos:
Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave, where nothing
But who knows nothing is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rent the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
act 4, scene 3