As the ‘dark pleasure’ of the multi-award-winning Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth arrives at Theatre Royal Winchester (Jan 31 & Feb 1) as part of a national tour, veteran dance-theatre critic Donald Hutera learns more about this compelling new take on Shakespeare’s most notorious couple – and, in a Winchester Guide exclusive, speaks not just to the show’s creator but to the two dancers cast in the leading roles.
MARK BRUCE, choreographer and director
Q. What are your thoughts on Macbeth?
MARK BRUCE: It hits you fast, cuts through to the bone, and for me it’s the least ambiguous of Shakespeare‘s plays. Its darkness opens our nightmares; we recognise fundamental traits inside ourselves, and the consequences of acting upon them. The vicious pursuit of power to fill a void will always be relevant. The Macbeths are everywhere in every age, because they’re a part of us.
Q. When did you discover Macbeth and what did you think?
MARK BRUCE: I first read it as a teenager and, returning to it now, the images and atmosphere it evokes haven’t changed. Its power lies in a relentless tale of supernatural horror told with a beauty and symbolism that reaches to the tragic state of the ‘other.’ The supernatural is always present in Macbeth, bending our own thoughts and perceptions as well as those of the protagonists. It infects us, always one step ahead, and Macbeth’s decisions are made in the world of a nightmare as if there’s no separation between thought and action. Murder is done and descent is rapid.
Q. Why choose Macbeth?
MARK BRUCE: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I had a vision of Macbeth’s world and some of the cast in mind. It was the same with my company’s previous shows, Dracula and The Odyssey. The choreographic language of Macbeth is very specific and detailed, and I felt I had the right dancers at the right time in their careers to pursue this vocabulary. I do feel there’s a time when you are ready to do a production, and you can’t really contrive that.
Q. Your production puts Lady Macbeth centre-stage with Macbeth himself. Please say more…
MARK BRUCE: The Macbeths are mere playthings of the evil they set free, and in the madness and emptiness that ensues they become but walking shadows, or – as in my adaptation – simply clowns of sound and fury.
Q. Are you influenced by other artists?
MARK BRUCE: Influences always begin subconsciously and often it’s only in retrospect that I identify them. I also don’t expect to completely understand why an influence has imposed itself. I do think I’ve been affected by the films of David Cronenberg for this production: their pace, his economic shot selection and the film Eastern Promises especially. The brooding atmosphere, the colour, the darkness seem to marry with the world and characters I saw Macbeth taking place in. Compared to a production like The Odyssey, in which there was a myriad of influences, Macbeth is far more lean. It’s written for the stage. My approach has been quite simple so I can really explore the text, and get deeply into the characters and the world in which it is set.
Q. How do you choose your dancers for Mark Bruce Company productions?
MARK BRUCE: Sometimes I’ll have particular dancers in mind for a production and this will have a bearing on whether I pursue it or not – whether it’s an established narrative or something I’ve written myself. With Macbeth I had a combination of dancers I already knew and some new ones. I held an audition for which we had over six hundred and fifty applicants. From this I took three dancers. They needed to be strong dramatically and in contemporary and classical technique.
Q. Your music choice for Macbeth is classical and doesn’t involve any of your own compositions, unlike many of your other productions.
MARK BRUCE: The music of Arvo Pärt was a fundamental decision in realising a through-line for Macbeth. I was instantly drawn to how it captures something deep inside us. It can be sparse and refined, and for me Macbeth is a refined play. Like Arvo Pärt’s music, there’s so much going on with every line, every suggestion, and this enables our imagination to transcend to the state of what’s inside the protagonists, what they are missing, and the state of their souls. I felt the combination of the subject matter and this music created something beautiful and tragic. These two elements were the basis of my interpretation of Macbeth.
ELEANOR DUVAL and JONATHAN GODDARD, dancers
Q. What are the pleasures (and any perils!) of working for and with Mark Bruce?
ELEANOR DUVAL: This process has been a pleasurable one. We started with some R&D a year ago with a few dancers in the studio, where Mark tried some ideas out and started working on the relationship between the Macbeths. He’s taken his time to create these characters, which has also given us time to inhabit them. Everything has been very detailed, and the ‘conversations’ between Jon and myself are crucial to the plot. The new studio the company has in Frome is a game-changer. There all the creative team have been around, and we’ve had the set up in the studio from day one of rehearsals, so a real sense of atmosphere and excitement has been apparent from the beginning. I guess the only peril working for Mark is that I seem to have very disturbing dreams!
JONATHAN GODDARD: This is my third production with Mark, and I enjoy trying to bring the visions he has into the world. It’s always interesting to see how a director imagines a character, and I relish the darkness of the roles – thankfully quite different to my own temperament and life.
Q. What sorts of things have you discovered during the creation period about the character you play?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Lady Macbeth is extremely manipulative and will do anything to gain power. I feel during the creation time I put a lot of work into how I could make this clear to an audience. The result has been an editing process where ‘less is more.’ The calmer she remains the stronger she comes across. The detail in every look is crucial. Mark spent a long time with Jonathan and me on our physical and mental reactions to the various situations we find ourselves in during the piece. One thing that surprised me was the vulnerability in my character. Obviously I know the play, and the ‘washing of the hands’ scene is well-known. Her insanity, however, builds throughout this production. Lady Macbeth remains strong for her husband until her stubbornness, pride and denial finally cracks, and everything spirals out of her control.
JONATHAN GODDARD: It’s been interesting to give myself over to a character that seems to aspire to total freedom, but who also has to negotiate and bear the extreme repercussions and effects of his actions and fate. I love that Shakespeare makes everything happen right away, right that minute. If Macbeth decides to murder someone he’ll do it straight away; if things go wrong, they spiral fast. It makes the journey a thrilling one, and demands real on-the-spot commitment to some quite extreme moments.
Q: What have you discovered about yourself as an artist and a person?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Worryingly, I’ve discovered that I enjoy being an incredibly awful person! It’s been a real treat to dip into something this evil. I’ve also found the detail and precision of the choreography an enjoyable challenge. We’ve worked closely from the script in creating a choreographic language. Every nuance and accent is specific. Of all the productions I’ve danced in for Mark this has been a very different approach, and therefore I’ve learnt new skills at the right time in my career.
JONATHAN GODDARD: That I’m still enjoying dancing in my late thirties. It takes longer and longer to warm up, but I’m still curious and my body is just about doing what I want it to.
Q. If this version of Macbeth were to be experienced with all the senses, how might it smell, feel and taste?
ELEANOR DUVAL: This production would definitely taste metallic and smell of flesh. However there are sweet tastes along the way as I feel Mark has created a lot of beauty within the harshness.
JONATHAN GODDARD: I think it would taste metallic, and feel as if someone has just left you alone in a car park at night!
Q. What will it sound and look like?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Truly beautiful.
JONATHAN GODDARD: It sounds very beautiful. Mark has worked with a lot of Arvo Pärt for this production. I think this music captures Macbeth’s sort of transcendent state and the constant presence of the supernatural in his world.
Q. In a nutshell, why does this Macbeth need to be seen and experienced?
ELEANOR DUVAL: It’s a unique production that touches all the senses. Audiences will ultimately find it cathartic. Mark has created a world which we have all delved into, from the dancers to the creative team – lights, costumes and set. The audience will have a chance to be drawn into this world and experience Shakespeare’s savage tragedy in all its beauty.
JONATHAN GODDARD: I think Macbeth always feels very modern and current to audiences. It definitely speaks to now and the perils of power unchecked. It’s a brilliant introduction to dance-theatre if you haven’t seen any before and, hopefully, a dark pleasure if you have.