Following a hugely successful Edinburgh Festival 2022 run, award-winning Flabbergast Theatre are just about to start a four-week run of their highly critically acclaimed The Tragedy of Macbeth to Southwark playhouse for a four-week run.
In this classic tale of greed and guilt, Flabbergast’s Macbeth fuses a rigorous and respectful approach to text and storytelling to bring a magical, lucid interpretation of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy to life.
Playing to their strengths and background in puppetry, clown, mask, ensemble and physical theatre, Flabbergast have developed their first text-based production (with extensive R&D with Wilton’s Musical Hall London and Grotowski Institute Poland) to foster the bard’s original text supported with exhilarating live music to produce a provocative and enjoyably accessible show.
We sat down with Artistic Director Henry Maynard, who plays the titular role in the new production.
How would you describe Flabbergast’s take on Macbeth in 3 words?
Visceral. Mad. Gripping.
Do audiences need to know of/have read the original text before seeing this version?
Not at all. Our focus is on storytelling and delivering a concise and exciting version of the play. We pride ourselves on making the text and the storyline as clear as is possible. We have several ensemble members who speak English as a second language and for whom the idea of performing Shakespeare was initially nerve wracking, who now revel in how easy the text is to understand.
Through our process, we have forensically dissected the language and verse of Shakespeare, using it to communicate more clearly as indeed it was first intended to do. Often Shakespeare will use flowery poetry alongside more direct explanations, this was because he was writing for two distinct audiences, those of the court and those in the pit.
An example is:
‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
clean from my hand? No – this my hand will rather
the multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.’
Here, hopefully if you miss the poeticism of ‘incarnadine’ you will catch the meaning of ‘making the green one red’
The text is spoken at a lick and I think sometimes people worry that they miss bits, but we would advise letting it wash over you and allowing for the fact that there are archaisms that may not be fully understandable now. Also, bear in mind that Shakespeare created his own words where they did not exist…For example, the first recorded use of ‘bubble’ is in this play.
Do you prefer being on or behind the stage? Why?
Personally, I love acting. It is my first love and I continue to perform as an actor outside my work as the Artistic Director.
I am currently performing in ‘Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’, played the main antagonist in the multi-million pound Bollywood Epic ‘Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy’, and played the head of Topthorn in The National Theatre’s ‘War Horse’, to name a few.
Setting up Flabbergast grew out of my desire to exert more creative control over the performances that I was in, and to create a true ensemble dedicated to the creative growth of its members.
I also delight in set and poster design, prop making, and cooking for the company. We have become a family because of the way we work, which makes the residencies that we do one of the most magical experiences that I have ever taken part in during my career.
The set and costumes in ‘Macbeth’ have been described as ‘aesthetically arresting’. How do the clothes and the backdrop elevate the characters / bring the story to life?
I wanted the play to hang in time rather than be entirely influenced by a specific place or era. It is certainly true that we are influenced by the time that the play is set (1000AD at the end of the Viking epoc) but I feel that we have created our own spin, bringing in incongruous details such as the party hats and boxes of wine, which stand out from the rest of the design.
The skirts work wonderfully on the cast, looking as much like druidic robes as the gendered clothing that we recognise in today’s society. We use them in times of ritual and eschew them in moments of chaos.
As the comedian Stewart Lee said of the show ‘In this brilliantly designed show the turns seem to have risen up out of the clay itself,’ which is very much what we were aiming for; as if the dead from the battle have risen to tell the cautionary tale.
We have a subscribed aesthetic of ‘poor theatre’, focussing on the story telling rather than flashy production values.
Poor theatre: ‘Using the smallest amount of fixed elements to obtain maximum results by means of the magical transformation of objects, through the props’ multifunctional ‘acting’. To create complete worlds using only the things to hand.’ – Ludwik Flaszen
Your ensemble includes not only members of different genders and identities but also of different disciplines including acting, dancing, clowning, circus and puppetry. How do you blend all those skills together into a Shakespeare piece?
We did a work in progress at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2018 to research whether our history of devising and skills would serve the play. We did a 10 day rehearsal period in which we threw everything we had at it.
Shakespeare’s writing is so brilliant that it generally survives even the most dubious reinterpretations, but we discovered that a physical approach actually served the storytelling in a way that was widely lauded by our audiences and critics. I think that is key – we tried to steer clear of doing things that didn’t serve to tell the story and provide an interpretation that was exciting, new and above all, Flabbergast.
How important was it to you and your cast to highlight feminine power and put gender roles and the social constructs surrounding them at the centre of the performance?
It occurred to us quite early on that one of the key themes of this play was feminine power and the masculine fear of it. The Witches are dehumanised as was done to real women in the pursuit of control and power.
Lady Macbeth, to become ‘strong’ enough to carry out the murder has to ‘unsex’ herself. Gender roles and their presumptions run through the play, repeatedly surfacing and questioning us as practitioners and audiences. Macbeth is asked ‘are you a man?’, Lady Macbeth plays upon his image of himself as a ‘man’ to manipulate and control his actions, Macbeth says ‘bring forth men children only for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males.’
How big is the team behind this production? You have a movement consultant and a musicality consultant, is that right?
We have garnered a few more people since forming the new Flabbergast Ensemble in 2020 (just in time for Covid).
Artistic Director/designer/chef/van driver and Macbeth – Henry Maynard.
Lucy Godfrey joined us in 2020 as Flabbergast Theatre’s Producer.
We have been working with Matej Matejka, our Movement consultant since the summer of 2020.
In 2021, Adam Clifford directed the music and created arrangements for us.
Also in 2021, Rachel Shipp created a lighting design (which we keep getting her to adapt for traverse/thrust/in the round, much to her chagrin).
We trained in Butoh with Marie Gabrielle-Rotie, and Emma Bonnici brought her vocal expertise to the company, leaving us with a Ukrainian folk song that remains in the piece.
Marina Renee-Cemmick is our resident fine artist. She created a whole exhibition of work in response to the show, which will be on display at Southwark Playhouse throughout the run and available for purchase.
We have increased the size of the ensemble and now have eleven members.
Seven devising members: Daniel Chrisotomou, Kyll Anthony Thomas-Cole, Vyte Garriga, Simon Gleave, Elisabeth Gunawan, Briony O’Callaghan, and Dale Wylde.
And four performing members: Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, Paulina Kzreczkowska, Ross Lennon, Elliot Pritchard.
You’ve toured Australia, Europe, Africa and America – how does a home-town English audience differ? Which is your favourite place to showcase a production?
We do really love the varying responses and space that we go to. We have set out to create a hyperflexible show that is as at home in a car park, or castle, or traditional proscenium arch theatre. We have found that traditionally small-c conservative audiences engage with the production with as much delight as audiences seeking a more avant-garde experience, which is hugely gratifying. Edinburgh Fringe is always fun, although becoming more and more expensive and as most of us live in London, it is great to come back. Exploring new countries and audiences is also a pleasure and we are really looking forward to our upcoming European dates in Germany, Romania and Poland.
Who is the show for? i.e., who do you think would enjoy it the most?
EVERYONE! It sounds glib but we believe we have produced something that will excite new audiences, satisfy more experienced theatre goers, and the audiences that might be more used to our cabaret, immersive, puppetry and clown work. Obviously, we can’t please everyone and if we don’t get a couple of walk-outs we probably aren’t trying hard enough, but if you come with an open mind, we expect you to be delighted.
What do you want audiences to take away from the show?
Whilst we have applied theatre arts from our background training, we are really most interested in entertaining our audiences and telling Shakespeare’s amazing story.
The elements that we have used should ultimately serve the play and even make the story easier to understand. We want those that normally avoid Shakespeare to come feeling confident that our production is accessible and exciting. We want them to go away with a wonderful experience that they will talk about for years to come!
Where can we find more information on Macbeth and Flabbergast’s future projects?
The best thing to do is to follow the link! https://linktr.ee/Flabbergast
Flabbergast’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH comes to Southwark Playhouse Borough from 14 March – 8 April 2023. To book, visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/macbeth/