Macbeth at the Albery - The Inside Story

Last Update: 13 November 2002

"An uneasy limbo": The Set and Costume Designer talks about his ideas

Michael Pavelka is the designer of Macbeth at the Albery and has designed many shows for Edward Hall including Julius Caesar and Henry V for the RSC and Rose Rage for "Propeller". Michael also runs the Theatre Design course at Wimbledon School of Art.

What was the starting point?
Working with Macbeth has been rather like designing a new play. I didn’t know it in any detail. I began with a couple of slow reads of what was already a finely edited version. Apart from very foggy memories of a National Theatre production with Albert Finney and Dorothy Tutin mixed with snapshots of Trevor Nunn’s intimate TV recording of his RSC production and the 1971 Roman Polanski film images, I had no preconceptions; I was in the dark. Talking of which…

What is the play about and what materials might we use?
Light, or rather its absence was one of my starting points and I resolved to make only frugal additions to the spaces the production was due to play in; a floor, a single central wall perhaps. The narrative thrust of Macbeth, which is pacey and economical, would be told by people and the things they use, suggesting locations rather than slowing the action by introducing successive, heavy scenic elements; in principle, no different from Jacobean staging.

Sources of illumination, ceremonial flame and practical electric torches, candles in electrical power cuts and special effects stage lighting would all play a key part in integrating a language of light and lighting throughout the production. Objects, their qualities, tone and colour would have to be chosen on the strengths of how light skimmed or reflected their surface. Producing shadow and deep darkness had to be implicit in the scenic architecture. As always, a Set and Costume Designer’s collaborative exchange with the Lighting Designer would be essential.  

Myth and history in the present day
Director Edward Hall and I tend to read Shakespeare’s stories in a similar way, which is from a contemporary perspective. We are, however, mindful of the legacy of tales, rituals and traditions that are played out and reinvented year-on-year. So questions that begin "If you were a king…?" are still important as they deal with imagining if we ourselves in that situation may cross the fine lines dividing, for example, ambition and envy or power and its abuse. Shakespeare introduces us to Macbeth’s world as if he might have been cut into a film at the climax of an action movie. Our hero has won the battle, saved the day. Such civil wars are around us today and alternative versions of Macbeth’s Scotland can be seen in our houses on the TV every evening. My role as the Designer in the creative team is to ask myself questions like "What would my house look like if Macbeth’s ‘Tartan Army’ came to stay?"  

To answer such questions, researching a topic is key to feeding a Designer’s enquiry and imagination. The photographer Don McCullin sent home pictures of conflict from distant Vietnam and familiar Belfast in the 1970’s. The artist Pieter Bruegel painted his apocalyptic visions of "…the horror" in the sixteenth century; worlds teeming with characters, worlds on fire. A key source of reference for the world of our production came from his pictures The ‘Little’ Tower of Babel (c.1563) and Dulle Griet (c.1562) in which ‘Mad Meg’, the embodiment of aggressive greed, is seen running towards the gaping jaws of Hell.  




Creating the design
What’s the population of the play, how do they tell the story, what’s their history? What do they do and what do they look like? To meet any of these design challenges, I continually refer back to the text - it’s the work of a detective, not unlike that of the performer; the clues are all there in the character’s motivations and relationships with the narrative - diversions are risky! The other source of reference is our own life experience and that of our contemporaries that generate the cultures in which we all live. What the performers use and what they wear can help make vivid the life cycle of a character/performance over the course of a couple of hours.

There are obvious conflicts between two key elements of the drama namely magic (witchcraft) and weaponry (swords and daggers), and the world you and I live in. These topics have therefore to be seamlessly transposed and woven back into the mesh of the production. We made an early decision to call the witches ‘sisters’, triplets, who claim a shared vision of intertwined siblings - perhaps clairvoyant but not necessarily super or unnatural. Celtic characteristics, hair colour and skin tone would be a key link between themselves and their cultural identity.  

Taking current world conflicts as a starting point we asked ourselves what our immediate, seemingly familiar and secure, world might look like when militarised, mobilised, isolated and exhausted. The only means of combat left being that of the sword, perhaps claymore and dirk. By contrast, the English army in the final scenes may represent the confidence of a superpower’s expeditionary force, bringing with them the full might of a contemporary armoury but when honour is at stake, electing to use traditional means of settling old scores.

What’s beyond the world of the play?
In order to define the design’s core, sometimes it’s useful to imagine what life outside the realm of the drama might be. It became clear that the physical design could hold Macbeth and his wife in an uneasy limbo; on a fire damaged tilting floor in a tower (of Babel) that both protected and helped ferment the couple’s ambitions. The spatial possibilities of above ("Valhalla") and below (the boiler room basement of damnation) would be fun to explore in rehearsal. By now the design has formed into a personified purgatory in which the moral dilemmas of the characters can be weighed up by the onlooker who may say, "There but for the grace of God (or the Fates) go I".

Directors and Designers


Part Two: Actors and Acting


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