2. The Director’s Brief

Sometimes getting useful information about a production from the director can be challenging, they may know what the production will look like in their head but conveying their ideas to others is beyond them.  On this occasion, however, there is enough detail at least to get a lighting design started.

The phrase ‘post-apocalyptic’ has been used; and this establishes a harmonising theme for set, properties, costumes and lighting.

Of course, many will groan at this, and ‘post-apocalyptic’ has been done to death in the cinema since long before Mad Max (Wikipedia lists more than 230).  In Macbeth it may even be more inappropriate, since the apocalypse occurs during the action of the play.

References to biblical language abound in Macbeth; it begins with the Sergeant’s lines,

 Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,

Or memorise another Golgotha.

This idea of a second Crucifixion is particularly unsettling and anathema to Christian thought, though it also conveys the second coming of Revelation: the Apocalypse.  The weird sisters then greet Macbeth in the words of Judas when he identified and betrayed Christ.

The unearthly knocking would have recalled for Shakespeare’s audience Christ’s arrival told in Luke 12.36 when the Lord ‘cometh and knocketh’ or the prophecy in Revelation 3.20 that He will ‘stand at the door and knock’, calling upon the sinner to answer for his sins.  The Porter imagines himself ‘porter of hell-gate’, admitting sinner after sinner, while Lennox’ description of the night of Duncan’s murder echoes Christ’s description of the end of the world in Matthew 24.6.  Duncan’s murder is an analogue to that of Christ: it is a crime against God (kings rule by divine right), and Macbeth has doomed himself.  When Lady Macbeth hears the alarum bell she imagines it is the final trumpet which shall call the sleeping dead to judgement; when Duncan is called to judgement his ‘virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued’.  Ross asks, is it ‘the day’s shame / That darkness does the face of earth entomb?’ and again recalls the Crucifixion (Matthew 27.45),

 Now from the sixth hour was there darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour…And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened.

Macbeth’s eventual fall from grace is likened to the fall into hell of Lucifer, ‘Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell’; and Macduff continues the imagery, ‘Not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d / In evils to top Macbeth’.  As his earthly end approaches, Macbeth knows the record of his life must soon be prepared for his own judgement, ‘Creeps in this petty pace / To the last syllable of recorded time’.  Too late he realises he has been taken for a fool, ‘I pull in resolution and begin / To doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth’, and he knows he is damned, ‘But get thee back; my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already’.

The director referred me to the film The Book of Eli to get a ‘feel’ for what she was after.  The particular apocalypse in this post-apocalyptic film has been a war fought 30 years before over the Bible, and the book of the title is the last surviving copy, in braille.  Its survival ensures that there will be a repetition of the war and the continuance of man’s inhumanity.  The film is shot in an almost monochromatic style with filters of sepia, and steel blues and greens, washing out any real colour.  It represents a palette I think I shall borrow.  I also like the hazy use of a similar palette in the low-budget Welsh sci-fi film The Machine.

Similar washed-out, greenish palettes are utilised in other post-apocalyptic films such as the Matrix series and the Children of Men.  It is common in film – where the colour cast can be added post-production – but less so in theatre where the cold colours inevitably warm up when they are dimmed.  The last time I used these sort of colours was in Marat/Sade, back in 2004, though that was relieved by some pale lavenders and even some Lee 111 pink!

A comparable palette is employed in the filmed version of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth – which featured Patrick Stewart in the title role.  The atmosphere is full of haze and smoke, and the actors are often sharply back-lit or lit from above in cold whites.

Unusually the director is allowing me to use smoke or haze – or possibly both – and there are a number of reasons why that is appropriate.  For one thing, haze allows the beams of light to become visible, and thus to become almost a structural element of the set.  The director intends to use LED torches – for their brightness – and haze enables their moving beams to become an extension of the torch, like a Star Wars light-sabre, as she put it.  She proposes to use the moving tangle of beams to represent Birnham wood, so that will be an added interest, though it might be necessary to augment them with a few pin-spots.

Smoke is essential to convey the confusion of the Act V battle scenes, and Shakespeare’s fast, almost cinematic cutting, as well as the supernatural elements of the scenes with the weird sisters.  As with the lighting effects we noted in the first post of this series, the text is full of references to smoke and fog.  At the opening of the play the sisters ‘Hover through the fog and filthy air’; Macbeth’s sword ‘smoked with bloody execution’; Lady Macbeth prays, ‘Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell’; heaven may not ‘peep through the blanket of the dark’; ‘dark night strangles the travelling lamp’; the light ‘thickens’; the air is ‘infected’.