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Reinventing Shakespeare in Macbeth Without Words

The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, and the subject of countless adaptations. Many consider it bad luck to utter the play's name backstage, but Edinburgh-based theatre group Ludens Ensemble have gone a step further. Their production of Macbeth: Without Words strips the play of all spoken dialogue, trading it for smart visual tricks, intense physical mime, haunting sound and silent-era-inspired title cards announcing key moments.

Macbeth without words. Photo by Sandra Franco

As the show wraps up its 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, we caught up with Philippos Philippou (Artistic Director) and Vangelis Makriyannakis (Dramaturg) to talk about the process of developing such an unusual adaptation of the much-loved "Scottish play".

It’s a bold move to strip a Shakespeare play of its words! What was the inspiration behind the concept?

We feel that Macbeth is the one Shakespearean play which is closer to conveying the sensation of a dream or a nightmare. We wanted to convey this sensation and we felt that in dreams the image carries a stronger weight than words. You remember fleeting images mostly rather than what is said.

We felt there is a connection between Macbeth and the unsettling worlds of expressionism both on theatre and film. Macbeth deals with the rise to power of an ambitious aristocrat who then turns into a vicious dictator. But he is also a tragic figure reflecting inner tensions that the modern subject feels very familiar with.

The absence of words allowed us to focus on the body as an autonomous expressive entity.- Ludens Ensemble

German expressionism originated at the start of the twentieth century, it dealt with the fragmented psyche of individuals in modernity and the rapture of war. Nevertheless, its form and its mesmerising cinematic power was later adopted by a totalitarian political power - Nazism - in their attempt to aestheticize politics. We felt that expressionism is the perfect form to express Macbeth’s story.

Expressionism is a powerful form. It can both empower and seduce. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both seductive and powerful. We place the action in an ahistorical space. The absence of words allowed us to focus on the body as an autonomous expressive entity. No words empower the sensation of the dream.

What are the challenges of adapting such a famous story?

Macbeth is a story that has been taught in schools, universities, drama schools etc. It carries a lot of weight around it. We wanted to do something different and not treat the work as text but as performance. By removing the words, we are focusing on the performer’s body, her gestures and face expressions.

Conveying plot twists can be a major challenge. We focused on particular tensions that are created among the characters. These tensions go beyond the requirements of the plot. The story is there but we focus on the tension generated by bodies entangled in a power web.

Macbeth without words by Chrysa Karagianni

Of course there is a number of people that find the performance odd. But should we treat Shakespeare with reverence as if it is a piece for the museum? The Shakespearean plays or any other classic play or even the Ancient Greek Drama must stay alive towards new interpretations.

What reaction are you getting from audiences?

At the Hidden Door Festival, we distributed some feedback forms to the audience. We promised to ourselves to stay open to any interpretation. 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.

Your work combines many different disciplines - technology, sound design, video, physical theatre and puppetry. What’s the creative process behind pulling all of that together?

A director has a lot of choices nowadays. Several techniques and theories on drama are employed during the rehearsals in order to make a clear sense of the play. For the moment we would like to explore the new technologies in relation to classic works of theatre. We examine the relation between the play and the new technologies such as mapping projections, live loops, a DJ set and live cameras on stage. 

We explore these technologies more on our second production Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry which was premiered at the Hidden Door Festival in 2016. We want to develop further each production and to introduce more tropes to our performances.

There’s clearly a strong dynamic between the performers on stage. How do you achieve that?

We are working together for more than a year now. We feel connected somehow. We are a European Ensemble and we share our experiences. Each artist we are working with is unique. We've made something like a family and we care about each other. We are working is a very friendly environment and everybody has an input during the rehearsals. We make sure that everybody's opinion is treated and considered equally during the creative process.

Every aspect of the play feels meticulous. How much (if any) improvisation is there?

We are working in three stages each time. The first stage is full of improvisations. During the second phase we are reworking some of the improvisations that we believe are interesting. At the last phase we are pulling together the story.

After your current Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, you’re off to Shanghai...

We are very excited about Shanghai. Creative Scotland made that dream come true by funding our journey and our visas. This is a unique opportunity and we strongly believe that would be beneficial for us and Scotland as well. We will perform at the International Shakespeare Festival of Shanghai in September 2016. We are grateful for this because we have the opportunity to exchange ideas, develop further as an ensemble and present our work abroad while representing Scottish Theatre.

Ludens Ensemble received Lottery Funding through our Open Project Fund.

Photos by Sandra Franco and Chrysa Karagianni.

Macbeth without words poster 

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This article was published on 29 Aug 2016