Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Dramaturgy Without Words: Philippos Philippou and Vangelis Makriyannakis on Macbeth

credit: Sandra Franco
Life…is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing…

A stark and stylised performance of this most familiar of tales, of boundless ambition and greed and the destruction it ultimately wreaks.

Visual technologies – video-mapping projections and animation – accompanied by a dynamic DJ set and darkly brooding sound world, transform Shakespeare’s words and narrative into a visual language of potent and symbolic movement and imagery. 

This dramatic canvas of images also draws upon the theories of Bertolt Brecht and silent era film aesthetics, creating an intriguingly alternative interpretation of Macbeth’s rapid rise to power and even more precipitous fall.

Ludens Ensemble is an Edinburgh-based theatre group which works with live music, masks, puppets, projections and animation, creating performances that ebb and flow between the aesthetics of critical distance and immersive experience. In 2017 Macbeth: Without Words will be performed in Cyprus as part of Pafos’ European Capital of Culture 2017 celebrations.

What was the inspiration for this
The initial plan was to create a performance using only movements and gestures inspired by the silent movies. Macbeth is funded by the European Capital of Culture Pafos 2017 along with our forthcoming performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, to be followed by a project called Forbidden Stories where we will be staging stories relating to the divide of Cyprus in non linear fashion. 

The first project we decided to do was Ubu Roi but that was for 2016 so we were then looking for a play that would precede it but also be connected to it. Ubu Roi uses many of Shakespeare’s plays as a source for parody and especially Macbeth. Both plays are treatments of the element of power, the one is part of the European canon and the other a precursor of the historical avant garde. 

One is a tragedy, the other an absurd comedy. So you can say that our work along with thinking about the nature of a performance is also an attempt to speak about the workings of power from different angles. Our take on Macbeth is influenced by Ubu’s ludic qualities but obviously the atmosphere is much more brooding.     

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
We followed the usual procedure. We announced an audition. 

Actually it was a workshop. 

How did you become interested in making performance?
Philippos: The real story was that I was fascinated about theatre since I was 10 years old when we did a performance at the school and I had the lead role. 

It was the Hippolytus by Euripides. I got obsessed with theatre and finally when I became 20 years old I decided to get into a drama school in Athens. Before I finished the drama school I won a directing competition at the National Theatre of Greece. From that point I believed that I belong to the backstage of the theatre. Since then I am directing.

Vangelis: My background is film theory yet due to the nature of my PhD research on the filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos who has a strong theatrical style, I came to study theater and especially Brecht. 

But as many people from my generation I had a strong interest in theater from quite early on. In relation to this particular performance Philippos wanted it to be accompanied by a DJ set. And basically this is what I do with silent films. I happen to be a DJ and I also curate and perform DJ soundtracks.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Philippos: No. Usually I am starting by reading the play with the team. This time we started working from movements that could evoke particular concepts and sensations. Then we divided the play into different parts and we worked with the visuals and the music. It was a long process because we had a lot of work to do after and before the rehearsals. 

We were videotaping each rehearsal and then we had to sit down and examine and take of closer look of the whole process. What was common with previous performances is that I give space to the actors for improvisation. 

Also working with Vangelis was a new experience for me. We were discussing things at great lengths and this dialogical process benefited the performance. For Vangelis it was his first step at directing. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
We are open to any interpretation. During the performances at the Hidden Door Festival we gave some feedback forms to the audience. The forms were full of compliments and excellent reviews about the play. We were slightly worried if the audience will be able to follow the plot all the way through but everybody seemed to get a clear sense of the story. 

By answering this question we risk leading the audience towards particular reactions. Nevertheless we could say that we want to evoke the sensation of a dream or a nightmare and to show that dreams and therefore a performance is part of shaping our reality not merely representing it.  

We decided that we wanted to focus on a nightmarish quality for Macbeth. Our intention was to evoke the sensation of a dream on stage using minimal resources. Pierrot faces, video projections instead of real sets, expressionist lighting, morgue like cellophanes and a haunting soundtrack became an accompaniment to Macbeth’s murder of sleep.

We believe that in a dream the image acquires a more primary importance in relation to speech. Removing the spoken dialogue has allowed us to bring the actor’s body and gestures to the foreground and to deliver an acting style that has receded with the advent of naturalism. We basically love the acting in silent films. It is a different language. Gestures without words can acquire a strong sense of ambiguity.

Our three actors come to impersonate all the characters in the play yet it is somehow as if the witches are constantly there. Who are they? Are they in Macbeth’s head or are they external agents orchestrating his downfall and why? We want to raise questions without giving particular answers. Having an actor playing different characters while also commenting on them creates an ambiguity concerning their identity. 

Expressionism seems best to deliver this sensation while evoking a dream state. Bodies incorporate the movement of the puppet. Their status is suspended between the mechanical and the animate. We believe that this ambiguity retains its unsettledness today like it did over a hundred years ago.  

These are themes that are evoked in a quite subtle way. The attitude of the play is immersive yet there are breaks and this is where Brecht comes in. The actors then comment on their characters. For example we are commenting on the domesticity of women at the time when the play was written. Lady Macbeth seems to be breaking away from this state of affairs. So you see that the dream is not a means to escape a social reality but rather to comment on it more freely

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We think that the answer lies in what we have already discussed
above. Combining expressionism with Brecht. Creating intensity through an ensemble of bodies, lighting, animation and music on stage and then breaking the flow.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
We do not see ourselves working strictly within a particular tradition yet our performances carry layers from the theater’s past and present. Although we rely on the use of technologies on stage we avoid at being overwhelmed by it. We always bear in mind that an actor with just one chair one a bare stage is enough to evoke an image of a stage-coach in motion.

Are there any other questions that might help me to understand the meaning of dramaturgy for you in your work?
To be or not to be, that is the question (laughter).

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