The visual sacrifice


image Last night I went to the court theater for this show called Radio Macbeth. It was a disappointing experience. I was going to write something about it until I discovered a newspaper that had been on my table for weeks. In it I found a review of this play which I very much agree. I so like the review that I decide to quote it in length. Words in parentheses are mine.

“The real tragedy of this unconvincing production lies in the painfully obvious contrast between the overwhelming talent of the SITI company and what ends up being an underbaked adaptation of the Scottish play that isn’t quite “Macbeth” but firmly prevents itself from being anything else.”

(You can forget about the “talent” part, it is meant to be a nice compliment not supported by any evidence)

““Radio Macbeth” is literally a staged, painfully (yeah, we all feel the pain) condensed reading where actors play…actors, but the meta-theater immediately feels like a cheap trick: there are hints of relationships between characters, but nothing that holds attention for long, and there are almost no lines that aren’t Shakespeare’s. The show purports to be an actor’s rehearsal of “Macbeth” taking place in a late-night abandoned building, and focusing on the soundscape of the show—the strongest elements of the show are the striking sound effects created by a variety of microphones and the actors’ obvious mastery of their voices as they deftly plow through lines. It’s not clear, then, why the actors spend all their time during this rehearsal rearranging endless chairs for no apparent reason, putting on clothes, taking off clothes and circling each other in stilted, choreographed ways. (I guess there are some reasons for all this, but whatever they are, they fail to communicate) The visual element ends up being another tragic sacrifice…”

I would not go all the length to claim that theatrical art is a visual art, a narrative art (a risky business), but when these aspects fall short, the consequence is obvious; the insufficiency of the artwork becomes so intolerable. We normally don’t have much experience on this side, since averagely speaking a theatrical work does not show such a degree of lacking visual and narrative coherence. Therefore the error of Radio Macbeth is revealing. The show was inspired by a radio version recorded by Orson Welles but never broadcasted. The reviewer (Monica Westin) may not be aware of this connection. But nonetheless she notices immediately that the only place you can use the word “striking” in the present adaptation is the soundscape. It remains a radio play while it claims to be a “real” play. Being the latter we are obliged to watch where we are unfortunately distracted by the actors’ confusing stage activities. It would be nicer if these two have absolutely nothing to do with each other at all—for example, how about a couple feeding a baby? The reviewer mentions that the play is condensed in order to fit into the ninety minutes slot. And this condensation creates difficulty for the comprehension of the plot. But apparently neither Polanski nor Kurosawa has this sort of problem. The issue is not the condensation itself, which I believe is not done enough, but how to treat the original work, the lines of Shakespeare. If we want to create a distance where the original and the adapted can engage in a formal play, then we need a language that is in contrast with Shakespeare’s. Similarly, the power of a cinema of dialect comes not from simply using a dialect, but contrasting it with the language of the political unconsciousness.

Now a few words about Lulu, the opera. Despite the apparent irrelevance, I think opera generally suffers from the same problem of visual and narrative inadequacy. In order to compensate for this, they are often staged in exotic settings, lush costumes, and the singers are asked to “act”, instead of just singing. David Levin in his Unsettling Opera, makes the case that the staging is a significant aspect of our understanding of the work. Radio Macbeth is thus a poor staging which obliterates all the brilliance of Shakespeare. Instead of what the play is known for, the graphic violence, we see chairs and a Japanese girl running about (what personal perversion is this). We expect a banquet a la Greenaway, but we are served with unsalted potatoes in paper bags. Same problem for Chicago lyric opera’s production of Lulu. Although the use of a transparent/reflexive screen to cover/uncover the stage is a clever one, there is just not enough to look at. (in another entry, I hope I will show what is there to look at, even a movie!) I know some would claim an opera is not meant to be watched. These people can just stay at home and listen to their CDs—we are not talking about the same thing. In the same vein of argument, those who are intoxicated by the Bard’s lines and how an actor delivers them can just read the book or listen to recordings—we are not talking about the same thing. I talk to those who believe the staging is a major vehicle for opera. But unfortunately here in North America people are rather conventional in their taste. If you compare Met’s version of The Ring with European versions—the Bayreuth/Chereau version or the Kirchner version, the Audi version—it becomes clear that North American audience has a child-like fascination for surface realism, meaning, in a fable a monster has to look like a monster, not an old gentleman, and a dragon has to be a dragon. Proof? Lyric Opera’s eight productions of this season.


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