Teatro di Sardegna, Macbettu by William Shakespeare, dir. Alessandro Serra. Real Magic by Forced Entertainment, dir. Tim Etchells. Seen at the 54th Demetria Festival, October 2019, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Macbettu, one of the major international performances featured in the 54th Demetria Festival in Thessaloniki, Greece, does not turn Shakespearean tragedy into an extravaganza. Stripped of all royal garments, crowns left aside, no blood spilled on the stage floor, this Sardinian Macbeth, directed by Alessandro Serra, becomes a chiaroscuro study in the human abyss. The merits of this performance, much hailed by international audiences and critics for blending the Shakespearean literary and stage tradition (an all-male cast is used) with the Sardinian prehistoric culture, unfold before our eyes. The precise, martial-like physicality of the actors, the musicality of the Sardinian translation, the sometimes sensually disturbing and always imposing natural soundscape catch our immediate attention and immerse us deeply in an otherworldly state: The originality of Alessandro Serra’s reading is instantly felt.
To avoid treating the play as a mere literary text, Serra finds inspiration in the natural landscape of Sardinia, its indigenous culture and the carnivalistic tradition in the Barbaria region. This is a choice that sweeps away all realistic psychological drama, from the acting to the setting. The evil is not illustrated in words but becomes subtly corporeal, visual and sonic.
What is more worthy of remark is that although Serra draws from something as specific as the Ozieri culture (a prehistoric, pre-Nuragic period that flourished on the island from the Paleolithic until the middle Bronze age), he creates a spectacle that is not folkloric: quite the opposite, Macbettu is truly modern in its primordial force: A sculpture-like setting turns the sanded stage into an earthwork, making structures out of natural material and elements like rocks, sand, wood, water and iron. Minimal interventions like dragging a body on the sanded surface make an imprint of death, sin and tragedy on the stage floor. This is earth art, an aesthetic that foregrounds the rediscovery of things natural and man-made—of a stone, for example, which can equally be pure matter on stage or become a murder weapon. This is theatrical arte povera, a sort of Grotowskian poor theatre that uses common materials of a pre-industrial, pre-modern, pre-technological age to reveal a world that escapes clinical analysis and scientific rationalization.
In such a primordial world, dark and mysterious, Lady Macbeth, as a non-realistic, gender-indefinite impersonation, is central. She/he is the archetypal embodiment of Mother Earth’s dark force, both nurturing and deadly. Serra draws inspiration from the Ozieri statue of the Mother Goddess, but to a Western spectator not familiar with the local culture this Lady is abstractly evocative of the iconography of Christian religious art (such as Jan Van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece, or Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden). The stark nakedness of this androgynous Lady Macbeth in her death scene echoes the shameful nudity of Adam and Eve after the fall. The slim figure of this hermaphrodite with his/her belly slightly protruding can no longer be the road to God and Grace; she/he is the fallen Adam and Eve in one body.
Macbettu is similarly truly modern in its primordial force when it comes to the chorus of witches/peasant farmers. Their Dionysiac rite is again not folkloric. One may see in its gross mockery, inspired by the Sardinian carnivalistic rites, a Bakhtinian touch of the carnivalesque, but at its dark moments this is a dance of death in the style of Ingmar Bergman’s danse macabre in The Seventh Seal. With such a chorus, Alessandro Serra presents Shakespeare as a man of the mob and not of the monarchy, exploring “the dark affinity between the sovereign and the beast. . . .” Here, madness is no longer outside but “within the hollow crown” (Wilson 773); and it is in there that we are submerged.
Real Magic: Theatre as Fatigue Test Machine
Once again Forced Entertainment, the internationally acclaimed ensemble based in Sheffield, England, forces us to look the times we are living in in the eye, most importantly the culture such times create and the majority of us passively assimilate. Real Magic is not an easy piece to watch. This is, after all, typical of an ensemble who, in their own words, seek “to create confusion, silence, questions and laughter”, demanding “a lot from the audiences and giving [a] lot in return” (Forced Entertainment). Their performance tests our staying power, our stamina and endurance, as for nearly two hours we are bombarded with a barrage of absurdist, clichéd language and disconnected attitudes on stage. We are all alone in this trial that wants to expose our sufferance, even endorsement of a pathetic and shallow Western culture and lifestyle or provoke our damnation of and reaction against it.
It is as if Forced Entertainment turns the theatre house into a fatigue test machine set to determine our behaviour under fluctuating loads of language and action. A sort of cyclical stress is developed which in the performance I watched caused fractures and failure to some of the audience who left the theatre in mid-performance. But fortunately they were few. Most of us stood the test of time to see the demanding aesthetic “pleasure” becoming social awareness. As with fatigue engineering, such a process is vital, for it opens up opportunities for design improvement, our improvement. In short, this is a kind of theatre that is socially oriented and in its idiosyncratic and extreme way turns the aesthetic experience into social reflection.
Microphones, neon lights and artificial grass, chicken costumes and wigs create a world where nothing is authentic and corporeal.
Real Magic is a purposefully “diseased comedy” (to use Howard Barker’s words) (36), one that reveals a society obsessed with facts and information, an alienated culture whose members cannot truly connect, enjoy and laugh, no matter how much they hope to, no matter how many second chances they give themselves. The mechanical laughter of a spectral audience which we often hear from the loudspeakers “enjoying” the show mostly makes us feel alienated, as we can rarely respond to the staged spectacle with similar frivolity. This is a laughing society (again Howard Barker comes to mind), but its laughter is artificial and fake.
As spectators we are washed over with facts, information, pointless tests of knowledge, only to end up feeling brainwashed. There is nothing of the real magic and joy that the title ironically promises, only a purposeful, gradual mental exhaustion. Still, no matter how stressed, challenged, even bored or infuriated we may become, Real Magic truthfully invites us to enter a realm of changed social perception.
Barker, Howard. Arguments for a Theatre. Manchester UP,1998.
Forced Entertainment. “About Us.”. Accessed 10 October 2019.
*Penelope Chatzidimitriou (MA in Theatre Studies, Royal Holloway University of London; PhD in Theatre Studies, English Department, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). Doctoral research in the complete opus of the internationally acclaimed Greek theatre director Theodoros Terzopoulos; collaboration with Attis Theatre (Athens) as a scholar; interest in modern directors, performance and performance art. In 2010, she published (in Greek) her book on the work of Theodoros Terzopoulos. Other publications are included in editions of Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, China Theatre Press, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Theater der Zeit, etc. She lives and works in Thessaloniki as a theatre lecturer and critic.