With the Polish-langauge Makbet, Teatr im. Kochanowskiego brings a seedy Scotland to the Globe Theatre’s 2012 Globe-to Globe season. Director Maja Kleczewska locates the action in a mafia demimonde; the characters inhabit a narrow, clannish environment, the closeness of which leads only to wretchedness. Many of the men look like members of a lower-order crime family in ugly athletic gear, speedos, and gaudy suits. These are nasty specimens whose vulgarity is always on the edge of sliding into brutality, and their savage world is even more misogynistic than Shakespeare’: while Lady Macbeth frequently chastises her sometimes insecure husband, Macbeth is quick to rough her up. Two of the Witches, meanwhile, are transvestites who have no power over the mortal men in the play but, like Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff, are the bullied and often sexual playthings of the clownishly violent males.

At certain moments, aspects of the production appear to toy with Globe conventions. The Witches’ campy performances, for instance, could be seen to embody the kind of panto-Shakespeare get-the-audience-involved excess that some find so aggravating about the venue. When Witch “Lola” (Maciej Namysł) has  an audience member lift  her/him onto the stage from the pit at the play’s start and then proceeds to flaunt her/his buttocks to the appreciative crowd, you could easily imagine a certain kind of “purist” shuddering. The music, too, is often used to draw the audience into the “fun” of the spectacle, such as when Duncan tackily strips off to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” or the Witches belt out Gloria Gaynor’s upbeat disco gay anthem “I Will survive” directly to the groundlings.

If the company is playing with Globe traditions, they put these traditions to some very squalid uses. The music, in particular, creates ugly ironic counterpoint; “I Will Survive” is repeated as most of the company callously dances around Macbeth’s corpse, the whole scene looking suspiciously like the Globe’s customary post-show cast dances. Similarly, by staging Lady Macduff’s (Aleksandra Cwen) vicious rape  far downstage on the apron, Kleczewska reframes the convention of playing directly to the audience; by thrusting Cwen’s contorted face up close to the crowd, the director enjoins the spectators to reconsider Lola’s show-opening licentious “amusements.”

Perhaps the intermittent impression of Makbet’s “Globe-ness” is simply the result of the show appearing in this particular theatre because at other times the production, first performed in 2004 at the company’s venue in the city of Opole, looks very much like it was designed to play in a black box space. Specifically, certain moments and images, such as Macbeth’s pale flesh covered in blood or the sequined silver shoes that Malcom holds up as the absurd symbols of his kingship, would have been far more compelling artificially and carefully lit in a darkened theatre. So, too, does the acting frequently seem better suited to an indoor space. The power of the shrieked lines (and many are shrieked) dissipates in the Globe’s open space, and even the songs would carry more weight in cabaret-like surroundings, surroundings that the Witches’ modern drag costumes evoke.

There is, ultimately, the question of whom this production addresses. It probably does not accomplish what other writers have discerned in the Maori Troilus and Cresssida or the South Soudan Cymbeline, since Poland stands in very different relation to Britain and to the West generally than either the Maori or the South Sudanese do. But if the production alternately seems to play with Globe conventions and is out of place in an open-air, rudimentarily lit theatre, then what other culturally specific signification does it entail? Does it, as Paul Prescott suggests, have specific topical force as a commentary on gangersterism in Polish politics (or did it in 2004)? Perhaps, though I do not have the knowledge to say so with certainty. As a non-Polish speaker, I also failed to grasp the nuances of the acting, a fact that obviously affects my perception that the production was not ideally suited to the space. My outsider status was driven home to me by the very attentive Polish-speaking theatregoers who got the jokes that I did not and who seemed to represent the majority in the packed house.

On the other hand, it is not hard for many spectators to read Makbet as a comment on the shabby criminality of politicians in many places. Furthermore, the songs—from musicals, film, and the pop charts of the 20th and 21st centuries—served to reach beyond a local (though diasporic) audience to one familiar with “global” popular culture, most of which originates in the United States. The music, like Shakespeare’s play, might provide a common denominator for non-Polish speakers but this is not international Shakespeare that “writes back” to the Bard from a postcolonial position. Makbet might decenter Shakespeare and its English-language audiences while momentarily coalescing a Polish community in London but it is also part of a broader, well-established global Shakespeare that marries the plays to cultural forms that do not necessarily belong to any one nation, despite their mostly American origins.

Makbet signifies complexly at the Globe. Like the theatre’s season of international performance, the production tries to make contact across cultures but its cross-cultural resonances are, inevitably, localized diversely, in ways that were simply not possibly at Opole in 2004. Playing it eight years later during the Globe to Globe season means that precisely where, or to whom, it belongs is largely beside the point.

Rob Ormsby
Department of English
Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland (Canada)  

This piece was previously, incorrectly accredited to Dr Paul Prescott, Associate Professor and Tutor for Undergraduate Admissions,  University of Warwick. He has written a different piece about Teatr im. Kochanowskiego’s production of Macbeth in Polish for the Year of Shakespeare project which can be viewed at this link