| Matt in town - 8/05/07
“Macbeth” is Shakespeare’s supernatural horror thriller. Macbeth, a recent war hero, meets a trio
of unearthly “weird women,” who tempt him with promises of glory. In a dozen lines of verse,
these specters lure Macbeth (and his partner-in-crime wife) into a hell of deceit, betrayal,
and murder – all with the goal of a brighter tomorrow. Quickly our once-hero, haunted by hallucinations,
evolves into a terrorist and tyrant, slays his best friend, murders women and children, and traffics with
demons. In the end, Macbeth’s sins catch up with him, and he sees with bleak clarity how empty his tomorrow
has become. * * *
Now that, bare bones, doesn’t sound like romantic a evening on the town. But it is.
Shakespeare writes it like a carnival dark ride: so gory, picturesque, fantastical, and over
the top that there’s an undeniable joy to it, rather like the joy behind films like The Exorcist,
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s a thoughtful, dark joy,
that leaves you somewhere between a scream and a grin. You get the rush of being both victim and monster.
In our attempt to bring this all to the stage, Aaron Posner and I have each written two
“drafts” of our script for “Macbeth” since I last left journal entries. Four drafts total;
we take turns. “Drafts!?” I hear someone saying. “Are you screwing with Shakespeare?
Is this going to be ‘Macbeth,’ by William Shakespeare, with ‘additional dialogue’ by Posner and Teller?”
The answer is yes: we’re screwing with Shakespeare exactly as producers did in Shakespeare’s day
and all the ages since. Shakespeare wrote on the fat side. He knew he was creating a block of
material that would be trimmed and shaped for performance. He knew that to deliver a show,
producers make adjustments to suit the players, budget, and audience. The idea of the sacredness
of a play’s text (the kind of thing that makes modern playwrights put in mountains of set descriptions
and stage directions) isn’t Shakespeare’s style.
So, maybe no “additional dialogue by,” but we’re certainly not shying away from nips and tucks
and a few translations to make “Macbeth” make sense to the people who will be watching it.
But do we just cut everything that’s hard for the audience? Not a good idea. Macbeth’s mental
states get pretty far out. Sometimes what starts off sounding baffling becomes easy if you
realize Shakespeare’s just showing you what’s going on inside a crazy man’s brain. So though some
lines don’t make logical, translatable sense, they’re essential. Crazy people talk crazy.
Shakespeare has passages that are blatant exposition. Actors stand there on stage and tell you
stuff you have to know to make the play make sense. Some directors, scared of slowing the pace,
succumb to the temptation of cutting these passages way down or even omitting them. But if all you
put before an audience is the flashiest scenes, you buy your moment-to-moment amusement at the cost of
the real story. That can really kill a play. So, yes, there are times in this show that you will be
expected to pay attention and listen with no glitz to dazzle you.
Our production doesn’t have a year of rehearsals and 100 million dollars. We can’t make the cast
and crew sit around waiting for the director(s) to figure stuff out. We have to go in with fully-developed
ideas on all the scenes, in particular the magic/tech scenes. So we’ve spent this last year finding these
ideas. But where?
Stanislavski, the Russian director (and founder of the “method” school of acting), recommended approaching
a script by wallowing in the words of the scenes that first attract you. Stanislavski said that if you bask
in these bright spots and read them over and over again, you soon find those spots widening, and joining up
with other bright spots, until finally the whole play is illuminated.
As I read and reread the play over the years, this happened to me, just as Stanislavski said it would.
As a teenager I loved the Weird Sisters, their chants, their demonic apparitions. I memorized the
entire “Double double toil and trouble” scene and learned what the name of every disgusting ingredient
in the cauldron meant. I can recall being thrilled when I was camping and caught my first newt.
Now I knew firsthand what “eye of newt” was all about.
I can recall in my teens memorizing Banquo’s chilling description of how evil seduces by telling partial truths:
And oftentimes to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
I remember thinking, when I first saw “Psycho,” that the scene where Norman Bates cleans up the blood
in the motel bathroom seemed a close cousin to the post-murder cleanup in “Macbeth.” Even
the psychosis in “Psycho” seemed part of the same world of hallucinations as Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking.
And, of course, both stories are about things being the opposite of what they seem.
Lady Macbeth, anticipating her doomed guest, advises her future-murderer husband,
…look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.
Rather a good description of Norman Bates, too, isn’t it?
But it’s only since I started studying the play for our production that I recognized how much
Macbeth’s world feels to him as confounding as a hellish magic show.
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is fantastical
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
Nothing is but what is not. Macbeth is never sure what’s real and what’s just in his head.
Now, that’s true for everybody to some degree. It’s why we need philosophy and morality.
But Macbeth has no clear road signs. He hasn’t really decided what is right and what is wrong,
or even what constitutes reality. So he’s at a loss to deal with life’s equivocation.
In Macbeth’s world, nothing is but what is not. Macbeth defends the King against a trusted ally who is,
in fact, a traitor. The utterances of the Weird Sisters are full of double meanings,
and moments later Macbeth wonders whether the Sisters were real or hallucinated.
Nothing is but what is not. In this play, almost no one ever tells the simple truth. Even in private,
where there’s no need for lies, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan their murder of King Duncan without ever
saying, “Let’s kill the king.”
My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.
And when goes hence?
Tomorrow…as he purposes.
Shall sun that morrow see!
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters….
These two conspirators are alone. Nobody is listening in. So why don’t they just say what they mean
instead of hinting and suggesting? They’re acting as though what is, is not.
The night of the murder, actual hallucinations begin. Now Macbeth really cannot trust even his own
eyes to tell him what is and what is not. The image of a bloody knife seems to hover in the air
before him and points the way to Duncan’s bedroom. Is it really there or not? He can’t be sure.
Then as he does the killing, he hears voices crying, “Sleep no more!” They’re just in his mind,
right? The murder and all that surrounds it is as “fantastical” as his first imaginings of it.
Later on, at a party, Macbeth sees the animated corpse of one of his murder victims.
But none of the party guests can see it. So is it real or hallucination? Macbeth later visits the Weird
Sisters, who conjure up hideous apparitions (or are they hallucinations?) that give Macbeth advice that
is the opposite of what it seems to mean. Nothing is but what is not. As Macbeth’s reign of terror escalates,
his friends turn into enemies. Even the steely Lady Macbeth – who once mocked Macbeth being weak --
turns out to be childishly vulnerable. She walks in her sleep and dreams of ineradicable bloodstains on
her hands that are there -- but not there.
Bereft of moral compass, nothing is but what is not, and Macbeth and his wife are drawn down
the path to damnation by the equivocations of a seductive and perverse magic show.
And that’s one of the big steps we’re taking in this production. We’re doing the magic in this show as magic,
not theatrical convention. When Macbeth hallucinates the air-drawn dagger, we want you to see it, too.
We want you to know what it’s like to live inside Macbeth’s mind.
So that’s the idea. It might be wrong. The tricks might turn out to be distracting or lame.
And I might get killed when I’m driving to the movies. Nothing worth doing is without risk.
Now, up to this point in the process, our thinking has been conceptual. We have our themes.
We know the feelings and kinds of imagery we’re going for. We have concept sketches of the set,
and concepts for the conjuring in the supernatural and hallucinatory scenes. We’ve been daydreaming and,
ultimately, that’s the most important part of showbiz. If you don’t start with a huge daydream, art isn’t worth
But now it’s time to draw the daydreams in scale with dimensions a carpenter can build from. Time to go
from hypothetical to hard, sharp, and sticky. That’s what Matt Holtzclaw and I did this week.
Matt, recently married, was in need of a Vegas Honeymoon. So from August 4-10, he came out, slept late
in a posh suite at Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, worked on “Macbeth” with me several hours
every afternoon, then frolicked with his sparkling willowy wife, Rachel, for the rest of the day.
Working with friends is fun. Matt and Rachel came to my house for the first time and met
the talking bronze Bear. While Matt and I sweated over murders, Rachel and a friend dutifully
checked out the Vegas Chippendales show at the Rio. A perfect working vacation.
Matt and I began in the Monkey Room. We went over the script beginning to end to identify the parts
where magic would be done. We came up with this list:
Opening (we’re doing a few extra touches for fun).
First Weird Sisters scene (appearance, creepy physical stuff, vanish).
Banquo’s ghost, two appearances, two vanishes.
Cauldron, 3 apparitions, Sisters vanish.
Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking hallucination.
And assorted murders and mutilations, enhanced with bloody effects.
We went over these scenes line-by-line, acting out the choreography with the words, noting exact moves,
and leaving blanks to fill in where we had yet to solve the problems.
Now, of course, I don’t want to blow surprises for the show. But I’ll tell you that during that week Matt
and I drank lots of tea, and left on the marble table in the Houdini Alcove of my house a pile of papers
with detailed drawings of disgusting visions on them.
We spent ten or twelve hours hunched over the gore-stained slop sink in the summer-sweltering P&T shop.
Nate, the P&T Director of Covert Activities, taught us to use the electric heat-sealer to make
little plastic pouches. We tested four kinds of blood. Michael the P&T master craftsman, welded knives
to things and we put hinges where there shouldn’t be hinges.
The night before Matt and Rachel flew back to New York, Matt and I had at last a working “air-drawn dagger.”
So now we believe we have practical plans for all the effects in the show except one, the third apparition
from the cauldron, a child crowned with a tree in his hand. What a cold, scary, primal image.
A little goofy, too.
That’s really my favorite thing about Macbeth. Even at its most horrific, there’s a frosting
of psychotic fun. It’s not just suspense, murder, and evil. It’s a bloody party.