Mark Bruce’s Macbeth leaps from playhouse to DanceEast’s studio
- Credit: Archant
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been transformed into an atmospheric piece of dance theatre. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to choreographer Mark Bruce about his love of classic theatre and how dance can re-imagine how see familiar stories
Macbeth is one of the great plays of all time and now choreographer Mark Bruce, having successfully tackled Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Homer’s Odyssey, is now looking to bring the story of the ambitious Scottish King to the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront.
For Mark Bruce, Shakespeare’s Scottish play, is one of those iconic pieces of theatre that has haunted his imagination since he first saw it as an impressionable teenager.
“Macbeth hits you fast, cuts through to the bone, and for me it is the least ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays. Its darkness opens our nightmares; we recognise fundamental traits inside ourselves and the consequences of acting upon them. The vicious pursuit of power to fill a void will always be relevant - the Macbeths are everywhere in every age, because they are a part of us.”
Mark has enthusiastically embraced dance-theatre, giving the traditionally abstract arena of dance a strong narrative thread. He also uses music and lighting to develop a strong sense of atmosphere which is an integral part of the storytelling process.
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“I first encountered Macbeth as a teenager and returning to it now the images, atmosphere it evokes have not changed. Its power lies in a relentless tale of supernatural horror told with a beauty and symbolism that reaches to the tragic state of the ‘other’. The supernatural is always present in Macbeth, bending our own thoughts and perceptions as well as those of the protagonists. It infects us, always one step ahead, and Macbeth’s decisions are made in the world of a nightmare as if there is no separation between thought and action. Murder is done and descent is rapid.”
The Mark Bruce Company has built up a formidable reputation for dance-theatre work dating back to Moonlight Drive in 1991, Lovesick in 1995 and At Louse Point (1997) with Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish.
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His more recent productions include Sea of Bones (2007), Love and War (2010) which opened at the Bristol Tobacco Factory venue, Made In Heaven (2012), the award-winning Dracula (2013-14), and The Odyssey (2016).
Was a play as well-known and as complex as Macbeth hard to turn into a dance piece?
“The beauty of it is that because it’s an existing play you have the structure. I always go through an editing process for every show but once you strip it down, you really get to understand what it’s all about. You get a clear view about what’s going on and who the protagonists are and what they are after.
“It wasn’t a struggle to write an adaptation because the world these people lived in was so clear and the story itself is very suited to dance-theatre. The world these people inhabit is very visual and it has bags of atmosphere.”
You have produced three classics: Dracula, The Odyssey and Macbeth. What is it that draws you to classic stories like these?
“I came across all of them when I was much younger. I was a teenager when I fell in love with these stories. These are tales that have just stayed with me, they have never gone away. As you get older, you become aware of the stories which have had a really strong influence on you. I think I chose to work on my own adaptations because, quite simply, they are still with me, they haven’t left me, and I have found, as I have come back to them, they interest me even more.
“What I am trying to do is communicate to an audience what these plays, in this case Macbeth, have meant to me – how I see these classic plays – and put that across in the form of dance. I think there is something in these classic works which just inspires your imagination. There is a sense of magic about these stories.
“It’s partly trying to put on stage what you see in your mind’s eye and partly trying to create a proper dance-theatre version of the play you love. I always write a treatment before I start work on the piece, so I know exactly what I am looking to achieve. Then, as I start working with real people, it becomes a real journey and exploration.”
So how does it take to pull together a show like Macbeth?
“The treatment of Macbeth didn’t take very long because I was very familiar with it. I always have a time when I am thinking about doing it and over a five week period I put it together with the music. The interesting thing was with the scenes that didn’t resonate with me as much, I decided, as an exercise, just to remove those scenes or just simplify them right down, and look at what they left me. That was my first draft. With dance you want to pare it down because you don’t want to get too bogged down with complex plots. It pays to really streamline things.
“It’s not just a question of creating an atmosphere, it is enabling dance theatre to do what it does best and I wanted to get inside the heads of the main protagonists and explore the surreal world they live in.
There is an age-old debate over who is the truly ambitious one in the relationship, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. Have you come down on one side or the other?
“As to whether who is really ambitious, it doesn’t matter. I think it is human nature, I think we are all capable of being led astray or corrupted by ambition. I think the idea of whether the witches are even real is an intriguing one. There is an argument that they are just manifestations of Macbeth’s imagination. They are representations of what is going on inside him and are eating away at his psyche. To be honest I haven’t come down on one side or the other. I think it is a combination of different factors and everyone who sees the piece will have their own ideas and will see things slightly differently. One thing is for certain that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth aren’t good for one another.
“The way that I see it, the witches are powerful angels who are transformed into witches because that’s how Macbeth sees them. I think it is about human nature and the monsters within ourselves.
You have said it’s a very visual piece. Were tempted to include any text or dialogue in the production?
“There is no text within the work but there are lots of visual references to propel the story forward and I have used the text to create a world on stage. I have used the pictures that the play created in my mind and transferred that world onto the stage. It’s a world where you can meet a witch and you can talk about it quite rationally. It’s dark world full of ghosts and demons and that’s the world we have created with the set, costumes and the lighting, it’s about creating a place where these people can exist in a believable setting. It’s taken two years of talking to the production team to create this storm-tossed place.”
How much do you have in place before rehearsals start and how much of the performance is created in the studio with the dancers?
“I love working with the dancers and although I know what I am going to do when I enter the rehearsal studio, I do make the piece on the dancers. We have got Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the work is constructed very much with them in mind – so the casting process is very important because that determines the rest of the piece.”
Macbeth, by the Mark Bruce Company, is at DanceEast, on the Ipswich Waterfront on March 23-24