21 December 2007

Is this a typewriter which I see before me, its carriage return towards my hand?

I have more to say about David Pountney’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, but I felt that the much ballyhooed typewriter, as the true star of the show, deserved its own contemplative entry. First let me point out the extremely obvious: if you stage Macbeth (either Shakespeare or Verdi) and the audience, critics, and blogosphere are all abuzz over a prop – literally the first thing I heard when the curtain fell was, “Now, what about that typewriter?”, and that may well have been cued by its prominent mention in every single review – then you have done something way wrong, and should probably head right back to the design board, or possibly just into a different profession. The very thought of a typewriter in Macbeth might lead you to expect all kinds of epater-les-bourgeoisie craziness, and generally I’m OK with wacky whatthefuckery (though I’d like to suggest that Macbeth is maybe not really the best vehicle for such a display), but in fact there’s very little of that going on – as distinct from inept or inappropriate staging, of which there is plenty – which might be why the typewriter, mysterious in its isolation, has become the defining symbol of the production.

First I really should thank San Francisco Opera for giving me this opportunity to show that I actually have some critical standards and am not prepared to drop my pants and bend over for just any modern staging. Even if I were tempted to step off my (Dada-surrealist) swan boat, armored in the avant-garde, to defend the virtue of non-traditional staging, this one would send me slinking back downstream, though perhaps not until after I gave a few swift kicks with my shiny metal armor booties. I will proudly state that the Stuttgart production of Alcina was one of my all-time favorite evenings in the theater, an opinion I appear to share with Pamela Rosenberg and no one else. I have already defended Graham Vick’s Tannhauser. But this Macbeth only deepened my appreciation for what Vick did – the appearance of the children in Tannhauser moved me, but here their use as the entire army annoyed me; I found the use of one set for Tannhauser expanded my sense of the work, and here I found it limiting.

The typewriter, a regular manual machine of a now antique sort, makes its first appearance lugged by Fleance as he follows his father Banquo, who is hanging up Wanted posters, which feature two pictures that don’t look anything like the singers playing the King’s sons. Banquo is the only one besides Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who knows what the weird sisters said. After the murder of King Duncan, he doesn’t expose Macbeth, or confront him, or conspire with him. Instead he very deliberately distances himself from Macbeth. He acts a neutral part, which is why his murder, due to Macbeth’s paranoid fear of what he might possibly say, and his bitter jealousy that the murder of King Duncan will only end up benefiting Banquo’s offspring, is a significant marker in Macbeth’s descent into tyrannical paranoia and bloodthirstiness. If Banquo isn’t neutral, Macbeth is, from the standpoint of practicality, justified in having him eliminated. Having Banquo hang up Wanted posters compromises his neutrality by making him an accessory to the cover-up, and that makes it absolutely the last thing he should be shown doing.

Not only is he actively implicating the King’s sons when he knows better, the typewriter seems to be the instrument of this implication, so you'd think Macbeth wouldn't mind. But possibly, since Fleance is carrying it, it’s meant to show that Banquo might publicize (or already has publicized) his knowledge of Macbeth’s probable guilt in the murder of King Duncan in order to benefit his son (yet if that is the case, why doesn't Banquo also mull over the same philosophical dilemma as Macbeth: if fate has decreed something will happen, does he need to do anything to make it happen?). The chorus kills Banquo; Fleance runs off, but not before setting the typewriter down front and center on the stage where a green spotlight illuminates it. Highlighting a means of spreading news might seem like an ideal occasion for the sort of camera/big video screen technology that usually appears as faithfully as fedoras in this type of staging, but instead we get the typewriter, apparently because, despite the modern/archaic look of the production, it’s actually 1949, and typewriters are how we get the news out (Hildy! It’s Walter! Stop the presses – I have breaking stuff on the big Duncan murder case!).

The typewriter appears again at the end. I have to admit I kind of lost track of when it disappeared from the stage; possibly it’s removed at the intermission. Presumably its reappearance signals that free communication has now been restored with Macbeth’s downfall, but it’s hard to tell because of the goose-stepping soldiers entering from the back of the stage. I realize that goose-stepping is a traditional military march, but to Americans it means only one thing: the Nazis are here! So I’m flummoxed by its appearance when a just order has been restored. But that might only be an example of this originally Swiss production not quite translating, sometimes literally: early on there is a banner written in German, and later there are projections of Italian words, which I assume are from the libretto. It seems odd not to translate these effects into English for an American audience, especially given the work’s inspiration in an English classic, but all things considered in this production, those are peccadilloes.

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