Don't say a word
Expect toil and trouble if you mention the title of Shakespeare's 'Scottish play' at its Hong Kong performances, writes David Phair
Suzy Sampson and Adam West are jousting good- naturedly over whether to utter Macbeth by name while rehearsing for the same production that they're working on.
Actors and theatre people consider it bad luck to mention the name of Shakespeare's action-packed and edgy psychological thriller while inside a theatre. Shakespeare is reputed to have used a real witches' spell in his work, angering them and inciting them to lay a curse on the play.
Sampson, who plays Lady Macbeth, says: 'It's not rubbish.' West, the producer, says: 'Oh come on. You don't really believe that do you?'
Sampson replies that West mentioned the word Macbeth during their previous collaboration in As You Like It. 'The rostrum ended up collapsing,' she says.
West chose the play, to be staged by Stylus Productions at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, because 'it's not obscure, it's relatively short and has a great narrative'.
Of the murder that is pivotal to the story, he says: 'It's like a Hitchcock film. It's essentially a killing in a castle and even though we don't see it, it still feels terrifying. Shakespeare shows what such an act does to the people involved without having to worry about the blood and guts like you'd see in, say, Rambo.'
Drawing a more contemporary parallel, he says those psychological effects are similar to the ones in the 1994 British film Shallow Grave, after a man is discovered dead by his flatmates.
Director Giles Burton, however, points out that Macbeth is about much more than supernatural goings-on in far-off Scotland.
Written between 1603 and 1606, the play charts the rise and fall of a warrior who seemingly already has power and status but aims to be crowned king. It embraces universal themes, such as power and revenge, and is also visually riveting.
'It's not specifically British,' says Burton, keen that this production reaches out to first timers to the Bard. 'There's the supernatural element as well but in those days that was very common.'
His version, he says, will be traditional - although Sampson adds that the set is stylised and a little funky but cryptically refuses to elaborate.
Some past versions have updated the play with contemporary twists, perhaps one of the most memorable swapping the windswept wastes of Scotland for a kitchen where Macbeth murders the head chef.
Burton, though, decided against the temptation, much to the relief of Shakespeare purists. 'We could've set it in the world of Hong Kong finance, for instance. But I think the story's strong enough as it is and it's for the audience to extrapolate in whatever way they wish,' he says.
Sampson says she's focused on how her character is traditionally perceived and hopes the audience will as well.
'How much of an evil nasty person was Lady Macbeth, or was she purely driven by love for her husband and the united power it could bring?' she asks. Halfway through the production, she says, she finds exhaustion creeping in because it's so emotionally and psychologically demanding.
Sampson says Lady Macbeth's scenario is not so different from these days when wives help their husbands scale the corporate ladder. 'I don't think she's as cold-hearted and calculated as people think,' she says.
For her, the defining moment is when Lady Macbeth says: 'Naught's had, all's spent, where our desire is got without content/ Tis safer to be that which we destroy/ Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.'
Sampson says it's at this point her character realises her isolation as the plans laid have started to fall apart, her husband has pulled away from her and their own relationship is spiralling down. 'For her, it all feels irretrievable. She's also certainly overwhelmed by guilt which shows she does have a humane side.'
Robert Tsonos, who plays Macbeth, finds his role equally mesmerising. He's particularly entranced by the warrior's line: 'The very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.'
For him, it marks the departure of Macbeth from being the thinking man admired by many to one who is acting recklessly without regard to the consequences.
The two leads worked together in last year's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee at the Fringe Club. Tsonos directed it and Sampson starred as Stevie, the wife who discovers her husband has fallen in love with a goat of the same name.
Sampson says she thinks this bond has helped make Macbeth a more powerful experience. 'Because we have that trust, I think we've taken the production a lot deeper.'
Nine shows, including two weekend matinees, are planned after four months of rehearsals three times a week. One of the biggest challenges has been finding rehearsal space, while another has been the logistics of getting more than two dozen cast members together at the same time.
The opening night is already full, with many of the seats filled with local schoolchildren. A synopsis in Chinese will help those not acquainted with the plot to navigate through it.
Burton says he's worked hard to make the play open and accessible, and does not believe the dialogue, which bristles with allusions, similes, metaphors and symbolism in true Shakespearean fashion, will deter theatregoers.
'As long as they have basic English the more they will understand,' he says.
Macbeth, Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wednesday to May 4, HK$210, HK$260 (HK$200 students) Urbtix. Inquiries: 9127 0420