At the recently concluded 40th Inter-School Shakespeare Competition, held in September at the Wendt, I had the opportunity of watching three productions of “Macbeth” by St. Anthony’s, Trinity and Kingswood. The Competition rules — set under the aegis of the tournament organizers, patronized by the YMCA — dictate that a production has to be of 30 minutes each, and should reproduce from an original Shakespeare script an uninterrupted sequence from an Act; or from consequent Scenes.
St. Anthony’s — who were returning to the boards of the competition after a somewhat inconsistent decade at Shakespeare — came up with a rehashing of the tragic history, condensing within the given scope the rise and fall of the proverbial Machiavellian villain. In doing so, they denied themselves the opportunity of going deep into a concentrated performance that could have made their occupation of the boards more meaningful. In scaling down a full length play’s scope to a half an hour’s rabbit hole you deny yourself the wholesomeness of a concentrated theatrical stay. In terms of the acting and the coordination of movement — while not forgetting that it is with a group of high school talent that we’re dealing — a touch of being under-rehearsed could be felt. While I am a bit reticent in vacating a scabbard in commenting on a school production, St. Anthony’s, I felt, could have been a bit more applied and rehearsed in their overall delivery.
When considering the production by Trinity, their chosen excerpt (as was the chosen excerpt of a majority of schools that had chosen to produce “Macbeth” — hence, the tragedy of the dramatic imagination of All) led from that much flogged First Scene of Act 1, to the death of King Duncan. Trinity came lock, stock and barrel with the familiar Trinitian ploy of “Shakespeare in Kandyan Attire”: which, by now, has corroded into a predictable, cheap trick in the hands of Trinity’s Shakespeare Drama Hood, where — time and again — they have pulled out the “exotic” of the Kandyan culture and the Kandyan dress up in search of mileage. This is a pre-occupation Trinity used to their advantage — though not consistently — from the days the school was trained by the likes of Ashley Halpe. But, a decade or so later, the repetitiveness grows; and the misappropriation and misrepresentation of culture takes toll on the school’s surface pretense at “localizing Shakespeare theater”.
For instance, Trinity brought on stage an entourage of drummers, who were leading King Duncan to Macbeth’s castle. One felt that the drummers were given more focus and place than the script would dictate — that, too, in a context where there are no drummers listed among the play’s characters — which made us feel that the prime reason for the extensive drumming was to “score” through theatrics, than by characterizing the script. Not to mention Trinity’s “three witches” who were headbanging around a gok-leave “altar”: which, if closely analyzed, is a misappropriation of culture. In importing from one culture, it is imperative that one reads the culture from which a/the “system of meaning” is extracted; as well as the “host culture” through which it is re-distributed (in this case, the “Kandyan Sinhala culture”). One may vouch to manipulate a cultural system (or, a body of meaning within a broad cultural definition) for spectacular theatrical expression; yet, the “host culture” should not merely be used as a vehicle of exoticization alone. The finer nuances of various elements of that culture, too, should be looked into.
Trinity, however, was a compact unit in their performance, which includes a well thought out and well meditated inter-play among the talent. In fact, their thinking seemed to be superlative in instances, leading them into self-straitjacketing in places such as where old Duncan is stabbed. Lady Macbeth, who appears with the traditional beaded-neck wear and sundry — I felt — was suffocated within that tradition into which she had been exported. The knives used in the stabbing of Duncan are the daggers which are part of the traditional “nilame outfit”: an “accessory” which, once again, has its own cultural resonance.
Kingswood’s production was an “acoustic tragedy”, as both Macbeth and the Lady — the Lady more than the Thane — were poor in articulation and in projecting their lines. The Lady, who predominated the action, was also detected with an “accent” of sorts that made her delivery unclear and inarticulate. Both Kingswood and Trinity could have re-thought their occupation and setting of the stage, for time and again, the players were found cramped on one side of the boards. This was inevitable in Kingswood’s case, as their very stage setting itself had alienated the left end of the playing area. A stuffy, lethargic quality was detected in some of Kingswood’s “lesser characters”, which added to an overall amateurish vibe.
The selection of the scenes by Trinity and Kingswood, again, is symptomatic of the “predictability” of the thinking behind the productions: for one may expect an off hand selector set the task of selecting a “scene” from “Macbeth” to choose the First Act, so as to culminate with Duncan’s death. Kingswood was also guilty of tampering with the tournament rules as they — as a finale to their half hour stint — had added an addendum where (amid music and cheer) Lady Macbeth lands a crown on Macbeth’s head: a blatant violation of the tournament rules that quite clearly state that the original script cannot be toyed with.
As efforts by high schools among whom one must breed the culture of appreciating theater and of being a meaningful part of its partaking, the three productions showed both commitment and application. Yet, as entrants to a competition that has, over the years, produced both comedy, tragedy — as well as, not to mention, tragi-comedy — the three “Macbeth”s failed to challenge some of the other contestants of the eve.
The tournament was eventually won by Ananda, Colombo 10. Into its 41st year, the Shakespeare Drama Competition has had a prestigious track as a competition that saw the coming of iconic personalities in theater such as the late Richard De Zoysa and the late Ravi John. But, this is also the discourse that has been pushed from muddle to muddle over the past decade or so: a set up that, since late, is being treated as the heirloom of a superlative idiot and maker of low scale slapstick.
But, the people responsible for theater at St. Anthony’s, Trinity and Kingswood have both positives as well as key pointers to take home from their Macbethan showpieces. With the Kandy Shakespeare Drama Festival coming up, a revision would only make their future strides ones taken in the direction of liberating their dramatic Scotland.