For centuries now, Mac Bethad mac Findlaích has gotten a bad rap thanks to William Shakespeare. Not only did he become one of the Bard’s greatest villains, but he became shrouded in theatrical superstition where actors refuse to utter his name backstage.
This December, the Scottish King will take to the Jericho Arts Centre in The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth. In this mix of comedy, improvisation and Shakespeare’s original text, he will not only have an opportunity to tell his true story but will also look to lift the curse that surrounds his name.
“I was intrigued by the idea of destiny and whether Macbeth could break the fourth wall and truly ask the audience for help to break this curse that forces him to relive this false life over and over in countless productions,” says co-director Gary Jones.
“I just found that funny and worth pursuing. Plus, anytime you take a tragedy and attempt to find the humour in it is a challenge I enjoy.”
An actor, writer, comedian, it is from his longstanding involvement as a member of Vancouver TheatreSports, that he will concentrate on the improvised segments of the play.
Joining Jones in directing the classic text is veteran Shakespearean actor, Bernard Cuffling. And while both come from very different backgrounds, they were equally attracted by the challenges of staging a show like The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth.
“Gary has had years of experience with improvisational work, and is a great improv guy himself,” says Cuffling. “For me to work with the Bard’s words and then add audience suggestions, has to be seen to be believed. That means terrific fun.”
For Jones, the split of duties between directors made perfect sense and was a relatively easy task to fulfill. “Bernard has done endless Shakespeare, and I watch what he’s doing and simply look for fissures in the wall that he’s building to see where I may be able to get an improv toehold,” says Jones.
Calling the collaboration as respectful, Jones says it is all about the greater good. “We have to be able to give and take for the show to be the best that it can be,” he says. “I might suggest an idea for improv, but after trying it out, if it doesn’t really work, then we ditch it. To quote Michael Corleone, ‘It’s not personal. It’s just business’.”
But while The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth may use improv and comedy, it was just as crucial for both directors to begin with a foundation. “For Macbeth to reverse the curse of this play, we have to see the real play so that we can see where Macbeth attempts to subvert it,” explains Jones.
“Let’s just say that many of the lines, at least the better-known quotes, are Shakespeare’s,” adds Cuffling.
As the comic side of the directorial equation, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jones draws a connection between the ambition of Macbeth and that of the presidency of Donald Trump to find relevance for today’s audiences.
“Think of Macbeth’s castle and then think of the White House,” he says. “That place is just a seething rat’s nest of ambition and jockeying for position. Nothing has changed much from Scotland to here in hundreds of years.”
Cuffling, on the other hand, is far more pragmatic. “I’m surprised we can do it with just five people,” he says.
Not the type of fare one usually sees during the holiday season, Jones sees The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth as an antidote to yet another production of It’s A Wonderful Life. And instead of the uplifting “bullshit” of most Christmas shows, Jones thinks audiences are yearning to see something different during the holiday season “where most of the people are either stabbed or throw themselves off a parapet.”
“I mean, Christmas is also known as one of the most depressing times of the year for a lot of people,” he says. “Isn’t this play akin to dropping by friends for the night over Christmas and things going horribly wrong? I think that seeing a play during the festive season where nothing goes well, and most of the characters die might bring a modicum of well-needed balance to the holidays.”
Cuffling agrees, but for slightly different reasons. “It is nice not to have characters on stage with white beards, red costumes and not throwing glitter,” he says.
The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth plays the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) from December 4 through December 15. Tickets are available online through Theatre Wire.