Monday, 23 October 2017

Nathan Masterson presents our first ever podcast, which focuses on Shakespeare's intense tragedy Macbeth and new ideas based on the play.

An associate artist of 1623, Nathan talks to our artistic director Ben Spiller about our past productions of the play, how we engage learners with it and our upcoming new production Lady M, inspired in part by the play and the biography of drag artist Shane Gabriel Lynch. 

Featured throughout are Macbeth riffs, new pieces of writing by members of our Sharing Shakespeare group on Facebook. They are read by 1623 associate artists Jamie Brown and Katherine Glenn, as well as Nathan and guest artist Darryl Hughes. 

Podcast Transcript

NATHAN MASTERSON: Well met dear friends and welcome to our show, by name of Nathan Masterson I go.

Yes, hello and welcome to the first 1623 podcast! 1623 is a theatre company based in Derby who specialise in Shakespeare. At 1623 we want to inspire, surprise and affect audiences with Shakespeare's work through theatre/digital performances, learning workshops, participatory activities and training courses. We’ve performed all over the country, as well as having online productions, and it’s with that in mind that we wanted to develop our very own podcast, where each edition we will look at 1623’s relationship to one of Shakespeare’s plays in a bit more detail, interview creatives, and hear from our audiences in the forms of artistic work submitted, questions for us and suggestions on where our next project should take us. For our first podcast, which if the time isn’t out of joint you should be listening to around Halloween, we’ve chosen to delve into the dunnest smoke of hell and look at Macbeth. 

Coming up we have some of the creative work inspired by Macbeth sent to us via our Facebook group, 1623 Sharing Shakespeare, as well as news of an exciting Macbeth-based production 1623 has in the pipeline, but first, where better to start than with an interview with our creative director and founder of 1623, Ben Spiller?

Ben has a vast knowledge and passion for Shakespeare’s work as well as a endless well of creative ideas, which makes him the perfect guest for this podcast! I asked him to talk about 1623’s relationship with Macbeth: about how the company started, why 1623 chose Macbeth as its first full-length production, and how that developed into a very different revival.

BEN SPILLER: 1623’s first production was a collection of love scenes called The Course of True Love, which we played out in a Shakespeare’s Globe themed garden by the students of Derby Agricultural College at BBC Gardener’s World Live at the NEC, and we found that formula worked really well because it was very adaptable to different locations - it could work in one fixed location or on promenade, in non-traditional theatre spaces, which at that time was what 1623 was all about; it was about engaging audiences in different spaces, and that formula worked really well.

So we then adapted that into a new piece called Sinful Shakespeare, which was a collection of scenes that revolved around the seven deadly sins, hosted by Hecat the Witch Goddess who appears in Macbeth very briefly, and we premiered that piece at Poole’s Cavern at the Buxton Fringe Festival, I think that was in 2006 or maybe 7, and the centre-piece of that production was a sequence from Macbeth that revolved around the sin of Greed.

And we agreed there and then, the actors and I - that was Adam Buss and Jane Upton - to unpack those scenes in the play more widely the following year at the Fringe in the same location because we felt that the atmosphere in the cave was perfect for this play which is a play that is obsessed with fear and fog and twists and turns, and appearance and reality and we felt it was a perfect location for the Weird Sisters in Macbeth to take the audience on a tour of this underground world where they conjured up the spirits of the characters in the plays, that’s why that play was our first full-length production. 

Shakespeare wrote a really great thriller with Macbeth, it’s a really short play and there are lots of twists and turns and we felt that it was a perfect location for physical twists and turns through the caverns and from the different chambers; there were twisted paths, staircases, dark corners, we filled the cave with stage fog and it was lit by candles so it had that real sense of being underground; the drips from the stalactites, the sound of the river going by where the Macbeths washed their hands, the whole natural beauty, the backdrops, spectacular underground location really worked well with this idea of being claustophobic, at any given moment the audience would be just a few footsteps from the actors so it was a very intimate performance no matter which space we were in (they were all quite small spaces) so we just felt that this idea of fear in a confined space really worked well to serve the tone of the play. 

We revived the play in a very different venue; the Silk Mill in Derby. In some ways the directing was quite similar in as much as we worked on characterisation, voice, movement, physicality in a similar kind of way. The main differences were with the characterisation of the Weird Sisters who in the cave were very much influenced by their familiar spirits. This time they were influenced by birds because we wanted to really respond to the specific location that we were in. At the time, Derby Silk Mill’s ground floor was a space where Rolls Royce historical exhibits were on display and we wanted to reference that in a 1940s setting; Macbeth was in the RAF and instead of Glamis to Cawdor to King he went up the ranks in the RAF, and we wanted to find a more natural idea of flying compared to the aeroplane exhibits so we thought it was really important for the Weird Sisters to be ‘otherworldly’, to take their inspiration physically and vocally from birds, and one of the things I remember most vividly about the great performers there - this was Ava Scott, Grace Scott and Kat Glenn - they didn’t move their eyes, which is something that birds don’t do, they moved their entire head when they wanted to look at something to the left, right, up, down, or round, which was quite unnerving really, especially for the audience because like the Poole’s Cavern production this one was on promenade, so the Weird Sisters were still the guides through that space.

The whole setting was 1940s so the banquet was now reworked as a tea dance during the war with Glenn Miller music and vintage teacups and cake, and the costuming was very much from that period too, so yeah Lady Macbeth was an RAF Captain’s wife, Macbeth and Banquo were both RAF pilots, and the Weird Sisters were scavengers on the periphery of society who made their clothes out of old parachute silks and used soldiers boots as bags over their shoulders and really made use of the waste from the human world. So yeah the directing approach was quite similar, the staging was quite similar but it was more about the setting and the specifics of that location of the Silk Mill and the exhibits within it that influenced the changes from the production that we staged in Poole’s Cavern.

NATHAN MASTERSON: Another little change in the approach which related to me was the name of my character, or rather the pronunciation. In Poole’s cavern, where it almost felt like we were in the pits of Hell, my character was called Seyton (to rhyme with Satan). Come the revival and the more genteel (on the surface anyway) surroundings of the Silk Mill, my character’s name was pronounced ‘Seeton’. Small changes, but ones which make huge differences in the feel of a production. 

We’ll return to Ben later on, as he explains how 1623 use Macbeth in schools and colleges, for now, we have some of the creative works sent to us by members of the 1623 Sharing Shakespeare Facebook group. We asked for short stories, poems, sketches, all inspired by Macbeth and sent into us using the hashtag #MacbethRiff. We had several fantastic responses and, as it’s our first podcast, we’re going to include them all! Some read by me, some by the contributors, and in this case, by one of the many associate artists 1623 has. 

Jamie Brown is 1623’s learning coordinator, and played Ross in the original 1623 Macbeth at Poole’s Cavern. Here is his reading of Martin Dodd’s Macbeth riff, 'Sisters'.

JAMIE BROWN: The wayward Sisters, hand in hand, Posters of the Sea and Land...

The stately robes woven of murder and crown smelted in the fiery furnace of jealousy held no solace as they had both wished. As their broken minds tried to piece together where it had fallen apart, and shattered reality like a mirror mixed amongst bloodwashed thoughts, even they, them, the murderers had forgotten the beginning. Where murderous misfortune was born of grief. Before the tale began. Before the meeting on the windswept moors. Before the sisters lost their way. For it was not their first encounter, and neither was it by chance, after the battle, with Macbeth bloodied before them. Yet, as the cloth unravelled he had buried the memory so deep it would never surface, he had forgotten what he had done.

Pity them, the witches, pity their fate. For after Macduff struck him down, so he struck them from the world. Their existence dispelled by a kindly death. 

It was many full moons ago that Lady Macbeth almost died in the throes of labour, and her husband, who loved only her, and loved his unborn already, began to break. The physician and midwife had already fled before his frantic anger, so as a last resort he sent out his men into the villages to find wise women to help them, despite the terrible price he was warned of. Most there about had read the portents, refusing to go to him. But not the weird sisters, not they who saw an opportunity. They packed their poltices and herbs, their charms and spells and went to their doom. The eyes they met beneath Macbeth’s brow had lost all sense, they were animal’s eyes, full of panic and wild desire. He heard not the price they asked, nor registered the pernicious smiles that lay on all three mouths as they gently insisted they attend to Lady Macbeth alone, that he should not enter no matter what.

For two days no person left that chamber. The only thing to enter were endless bowls of steaming water and clean linen. All that left were the same but emptied and soiled. And then, on the stroke of midnight on the second day, Macbeth, who had neither slept nor eaten in all that time could bear it no longer, burst through the doors and broke the spell. The three sisters lay down their things and unrolled their eyes and dressed themselves, turned and spoke to him as one.

“Choose now lord Macbeth, which lady on this table will you for us to save? And which shall we keep?”

The strength he had fled him then and he collapsed to his, “Both, save both damn you, or I will send you all three with them.”

“You sealed that fate my lord by breaking the spell, choose now which shall you save.” 

Macbeth made his choice then, and after, as he held the bloodied body of his stillborn child, he butchered the witches in a frenzy. For the tale of his final days was wrote not with ink and pen, but with blood and steely sword. 

NATHAN MASTERSON: Thanks to Jamie for recording that for us.  

Next is a submission written and performed by Darryl Hughes, a Birmingham based actor who I had the pleasure of touring with last year. His Macbeth riff is a poem called 'She'.

DARRYL HUGHES: She is my ecstasy

She is my hope

She is always next to me She’s there when I fail to cope.

She’s my ever-present,

She gets me through the wars, She’s my intoxicating scent, She’s there to sooth my sores.

She is the ever-blazing light, She is my beacon in the dark, She gives me strength to fight, She is my morning lark.

She leads me back when I stray, She sees what must be done, She’s the one to whom I pray, She’s the reason I won.

She’s the voice in my head, She speaks of a task,

She speaks of the dead,

She doesn’t even need to ask...

NATHAN MASTERSON: We’ll have more submissions later, before that though let’s go back to Ben Spiller. 

1623 works a lot in schools to help bring Shakespeare’s work alive for the students. By associating movement with text, looking at character arcs aside from the words, and exploring stage craft, 1623 helps break down and demystify the text, making it more accessible. Here, Ben talks in more detail about how that’s achieved.

BEN SPILLER: We take Macbeth into schools, we’ve performed a shortened version of the play with 3 actors who play the Weird Sisters who then morph into different characters. We also do workshops, some schools want just the performance, some want just the workshop and some want a combination of both. 

Something that’s proved really popular across the board really, from primary schools right through to college is making stage blood. Everybody gets the chance to make their own bit of stage blood and then act out the scene between the Macbeths after the murder, it always proves really popular because it’s messy! But it also a kinaesthetic way of learning about that scene as well, so the students get a chance to feel what it’s like to have stage blood on their hands whilst they’re speaking these words so it has a real kind of tangible element to it as well as speaking the words and talking about what those words make them think and feel and how they relate to the plot of the play more widely, and the character arcs.

The beat of the Weird Sisters really helps as well, so we do quite a lot of beat work; drumming or marching, and call-and-response, particularly in the opening scene which is very much on the beat, where we go with:

‘WHEN shall WE three MEET aGAIN/ in THUNder, LIGHTning, OR in RAIN?’

So there’s quite a lot of scope there for moving around to that beat as well as chanting and call and response, and it’s really helpful because you just don’t need books or pieces of paper with words on, call and response is a really good way because it kind of levels out everyone in the room so that we’re all moving and speaking together.

There’s also scope with after having engaged with that language through the beat to split into groups of three so that the groups can then explore the language in a more concentrated way so they can come up with their own scenario for who the Weird Sisters are, where they are and what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Do they like each other? Do they hate each other? Is there a hierarchy amongst them? That kind of thing. 

There’s also lots of games that we play as well to explore the power shifts and the dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, games such as ‘Please and No’, where the students can get into pairs and one will be sat on a chair, the other will be standing, and the standing student asks the sitting student if they can sit down, only by saying the word ‘please’, and the person sat down can only say no, really playing out that dynamic of having to persuade someone to do something that you want them to do, and then adding in the text of Shakespeare but still playing that game of tying to persuade that person to give up the chair for you. There’s a character dynamic that can be explored without Shakespeare’s language, and then we bring that in, and then we explore how that language that Shakespeare gives us explores that dynamic.

NATHAN MASTERSON: We’ll return to Ben one last time, where he’ll tell us about a new 1623 project inspired by Macbeth, but not before we’ve heard our final two Macbeth riffs. 

The first comes from Julie Acred, and is performed by 1623’s training coordinator, Katherine Glenn. Katherine played one of the Weird Sisters in our original production, along with playing Lady Macbeth in both The Course of True Love and Sinful Shakespeare, two of 1623’s compilation shows, with Jamie Brown, who we heard from earlier, so it seems fitting that she performs this piece, entitled Lady Macbeth.

KATHERINE GLENN: He has gone, I sent him. He will redeem himself, and at last make amends.

We did not plan for this. The chance was made for us, simmered and stirred and presented as a banquet spread out before us. An offer made and accepted. It is our destiny - the voices told him - and it is meant to be as all things are.

My life has been so empty since. The memories of my precious child can’t be erased from my mind, and I can’t even say it, not his name. He filled our lives, made them whole and meaningful. Gave us laughter and joy and purpose, the only purpose we ever needed. Nature at it’s most basic.

But nature has cheated us, and we watched him grow weak and restless. His face still so fair, and his grasping desperate breath so foul. I sat by his bed every day every night, as the soft sweetness in his cheeks faded to grey, until the breath was spent and the candle was out.

And then when he had left us, why were we punished? Whose judgement was it that there should be no other? There was hope for a while, but fruitless and barren our hope faded and our anger grew, mine for him, and his? For strangers, for distant kingdoms, for some cause far away and without meaning. Oh brave Macbeth!

As time passed my anger took new shape. Are you not a man? Be the man I married, the father of my child. Give me back my family, let the grain grow tall again. But he had only his sad eyes and simmering silence as if they would bring the boy back, his dull brain numbed with things forgotten. What was he waiting for?

The voices have shown us the way. It must be the answer, it must be, and I pray the smell of blood will overpower the stench of untimely death. What is lost can’t be found, and if nature has deserted me, there has to be something to fill the void.

Yes, Macbeth has gone, I sent him. He will murder sleep and sleeplessness, and emptiness.

NATHAN MASTERSON: Our final submission is an excerpt from a short story by Linda Ball, read by me. Linda’s story relocates Macbeth to present-day Edinburgh, and to the cut-throat world of advertising.

Stuart McLeith adjusted his tie as the elevator glided up to the third floor. He alighted from the lift, his newly-shined shoes glistening on the polished floor. He strolled past the walnut reception desk with its spidery plants and took a moment to marvel at the view of Edinburgh from the expansive windows. He would never tire of looking at it.

“Morning, McLeith!” was the chorus that greeted him as he walked towards his office. For some reason, he’d been called by his surname for some time. It didn’t bother him. He liked to feel important and wanted to be treated as such. He was Head of marketing at Menteith’s Advertising Agency and a very successful man.

As he sat down behind his streamlined, chrome outlined desk he noticed that his morning coffee had already been laid out; a steaming cafetiere, milk and biscuits awaited his attention. He poured himself a cup and began to look through his emails, only being distracted by the gathering dark clouds and rumbling of thunder. A clap of lightning made him look up, he got up and glanced through the spyhole of his office door. There they were, strolling through the office like they owned the place. The Three Sisters. He had no idea of their first names, only that they were consultants hired by his boss Duncan Lennox to oversee the campaign for the new restaurant and more importantly, the process to appoint a new assistant CEO.

Thank you to Jamie, Darryl and Kat for their recordings, and Julie, Malcolm and Linda for their submissions. It’s inspiring to see people’s unique creative responses, and our final word from Ben is about such a production, a brand new work called Lady M.

BEN SPILLER: We’ve just been awarded a grant from the Arts Council to research and develop a piece called Lady M, which will involve Shane - who is a former drag artist - to create a new drag persona called Lady M, partly based on his own biography and partly based on Lady Macbeth’s character arc and where those two storylines overlap.

Lady Macbeth has haunted Shane ever since he was a child when he saw a cartoon of Macbeth at the age of eight in his grandma’s living room when she was bringing him up and throughout his life she’s come back in various different forms whether that’s on the page, on the stage, on screen and he was a very successful drag artist at Funny Girls in Blackpool, and what he’s now interested in doing is drawing upon his drag experience, his experience of performing Shakespeare before, and exploring his own biography as well. 

So it’s a very honest piece, it’s very from the heart and from his own life story, it’s a very generous piece, and the whole idea around this piece is that Shane is creating a brand new tightrope walking, anxious drag queen called Lady M, and is it going to be possible for Lady M to complete her act on the tightrope without falling off?

NATHAN MASTERSON: And you can see a work-in-progress performance of Lady M on Sunday 5th November at 5pm at Derby Theatre Studio as part of their scratch night. Details at derbytheatre.co.uk/scratch-night

Also, Jane Upton, who played Lady Macbeth in our original production is now an acclaimed playwright, and her award winning play All the Little Lights is on until the 4th November at the Arcola Theatre, London. Details can be found at arcolatheatre.com/event/all-the-little-lights.

And one final theatrical recommendation, the RSC are staging Macbeth next year with Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston heading the cast. Booking is open now and the production runs from 13th March 2018, with a cinema showing on April 11th. Visit rsc.org.uk for more information.

And that’s it, thank you so much for listening, I hope you’ve enjoyed this pilot podcast! If you have suggestions, feedback, or want to find out more about 1623, our website is 1623theatre.co.uk or find us on Twitter @1623theatre, or search Facebook for 1623 Theatre

I can be found on Twitter @natemasterson and until the next time…

I take my leave of you. Shall not be long but I’ll be here again.

MACBETH LINKS
: Find out more about Lady M in a recent press release on Arts Council funding
: Read a plot summary and the script of Macbeth with the Folger Shakespeare Library
: Listen to a radio production of Macbeth from the 1623 Shakespeare Library

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