An extensive review of Macbeth After Shakespeare after guest performing at New York's LaMaMa Theatre

One of the most extensive reviews of Slovene theatres guest performing abroad!

An extensive review of Macbeth After Shakespeare after guest performing at New York's LaMaMa Theatre

While Macbeth After Shakespere is guest performing at the biggest Portuguese festival of contemporary theatre in Almada 2014, you can read an extensive review Macbeth After Shakespere received after guest performing in New York's Ellen Stewart LaMaMa theatre.  

Slovene premiere of Müller's text directed by Ivica Buljan won Grand Prix at Maribor Theatre Festival in 2009 and Critica Cubana Award from Cuban critics and writers for best foreign performance shown in Cuba in 2009. Marko Mandić also won Borštnik Award for acting and Jure Henigman Borštnik Award for Young Actor at Maribor Theatre Festival in 2009.

One of the most comprehensive reviews of Slovene theatres guest performing abroad was published in Slavic and East European Performance journal (Volume 32, no.1; Spring 2012 / Winter 2013), a publication by the Institute for Contemporary East European Drama and Theatre.

Breaking down the bard: Heiner Müller’s Macbeth After Shakespeare, directed by Ivica Buljan, at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre

Shari Perkins and Sissi Liu

It is extraordinary bow malleable classic stories can be—how they are able to be formed and reformed into frothy visions or new nightmares to suit the tastes and needs of the current moment.1 On Saturday, December 10, 2011at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre in New York, Ivica Buljan’s production

of Heiner Müller’s Macbeth After Shakespeare offered a violent reimagining of the Bard’s work. The resulting carnage was simultaneously thrilling and—paradoxically—numbing to the point of tears. Müller’s version strips almost every last bit of hope from Shakespeare’s tragedy, adding a generous portion of vulgarity and peopling the stage with a brutalized and oppressed peasantry.

Buljan’s production takes Müller’s original impulse even farther into the shadows, weaving elements of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty with Sarah Kane’s and Mark Ravenhill’s brutal realism. The result is a violent, physical performance style. Macbeth After Shakespeare is an overbearingly visceral

and explosive exploration of themes of degradation, nihilism, and ultimate despair.

Originally co-produced by Mini teater (Ljubljana, Slovenia) and Novo kazalište Zagreb (Croatia), the production has already been presented around the world in Cuba, South Korea, Slovenia, and Croatia. Future performances are scheduled for Serbia and France.2 While at La MaMa the play was performed primarily in Slovenian with English supertitles that were projected on the back wall of the stage. The displayed English text—a dense, often incomprehensible translation by Carl Weber—was supplemented by occasional, strategic interjections from various cast members in English.

The mixture of spoken English and Slovenian, along with the projected translations, underscores the universality of Macbeth After Shakespeare’s chronicle of violence. Buljan’s staging, which he recreates anew for each incarnation of his production, offers a similar gesture toward the universal. It is regularly

adapted to meet the needs of the theatre space where it is currently being performed, the mise en scène encompassing many different configurations, including proscenium, arena, and thrust. Buljan, speaking about the group’s choices, explains, ‘’This logic of adaptation and changes of [actor-audience] constellations was already a basis for our thinking how to do, create, and make a space for the play and actors.”3

The production’s flexibility is made possible by using the barest of means to stage the show: chairs that the actors sit on in between scenes surround the playing area, making up the entire set. The architectural elements of the theatre—including the balconies around the perimeter of the room and the aisles on either side of the audience—were transformed into playing spaces. At every new venue, the company tapes white block-shaped numbers and letters on the stage floor, indicating the exact latitude and longitude of the performance space. Buljan explains that this design element stresses simultaneously the immediacy and the universality of the piece.4 Müller’s nightmare, It is suggested, can happen anywhere in the world, and it is in fact already happening right here, right now.

According to his program notes, Buljan was attracted to Macbeth After Shakespeare in part due to the controversy its original production stirred in Sinn und Form, where critic Wolfgang Harich lambasted the German playwright’s pessimism, prompting other critics to defend the piece as an original text. In Müller’s Scotland “crimes follow one another creating a hell circle with increasing speed,” resulting in a “subversion of seriousness and the decomposition of heroes.”5 Indeed, neither Müller nor Buljan offer any redeeming characters. Even Duncan (Jure Henigman, double-cast as MacDuff), who in Shakespeare’s play is often portrayed as an old man, is here a virile buck who upon his arrival at his host’s stronghold, enjoys—really, really enjoys—lounging around on a throne of corpses and copulating with Lady Macbeth (Milena Zupanič). In The Theatre of Heiner Müller, Jonathan Kalb quotes the playwright as identifying necrophilia with “love of the future,” insisting that ‘’we have to dig up the dead again and again, because only from them can we obtain a future.”6 In this play, as murder piles upon murder and body upon body, the sexual shenanigans underscore the fine line between life creation and its destruction and desecration.

By incorporating the suffering of the peasantry, who are systematically oppressed, maimed, and killed by their aristocratic overlords for little reason beyond providing the latter with a few moments of perverse pleasure, the author opens up the cycle of abuse. to expose its deleterious effects on all classes. Particularly memorable moments in the performance include Milena Zupanič as Lady Macbeth eagerly ordering the torture of a peasant who failed to pay his rent, insisting “I want to see him bleed, to train my eye for the painting we are to do this night”7 Murder, torture, regicide, and art ate blurred in her mind—a delusion of beautiful violence that is severely undercut by the later scene in which the peasant’s wife QJomen Valif) and son (Jose) struggle to free her victim’s dog-eaten body from the stocks. Yet there is no mercy to be found among the downtrodden: as the widow weeps, the son turns on her ordering her to stop because the “snot is freezing on [her] cheeks” and selfishly bemoaning the fact that he will be unable to get himself a wife due to his father’s unsettled debts.8

Throughout Buljan’s Scotland, power is represented through muscular wrestling; lascivious coitus; and aggressive, (at times) non-consensual group sex—an effect heightened by the contrast between the beauty of the lean, fit, sparely-clothed actors and the destruction they wreak with their bodies. The two scenes with the witches (portrayed by five male cast members) a particularly potent examples of this strategy. In the first, Macbeth (Marko Mandić) and Banquo (Polona Vetrih, who is—along with Zupančič’s world-weary, bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth—among the most compelling performers in the cast), returning from their victory over Norway’s army, discover the coven engaged in an orgy. Fully clothed, the victorious friends-though hassled and mocked by the witches—hear their prophesies with relative equanimity and seemingly without harm.

While neither Macbeth nor Banquo are physically harmed by the witches, it is as if poison has entered through their ears: the cycle of violence has begun again, and before long Macbeth-now King of Scotland—is plotting to kill his companion. (“The future’s genitals I shall tear out, / If nothing come of me, nothingness shall come of me.”)8 Banquo’s murder is followed by a wild coronation feast, complete with food and liquor distributed by the cast to the audience members. During the feast, the performers try to get the audience to join in the revelry with shouts of “Long live Macbeth!” in Slovenian. This is one of several moments when speaking the phrase in English would have been a more potent choice. Macbeth’s madness begins to show, both in his antic behavior and his tattered, taped, and patched coronation robe. Now, he delivers an elongated physical monologue of agony—the climax of the entire play, and the utmost celebration of the degradation of power and human dignity.

Soon after, Macbeth seeks out the witches again. This time, his body is not invio1ate: corrupted inside and out, Macbeth falls into the grasping hands of the coven. Instead of offering mocking prophesies and mild harassment, the witches fall upon Scotland’s monarch., pinning him down, stripping him, sexually assaulting him, and leaving him naked in the wilderness to ponder his future course. Brutalized, Macbeth briefly yearns to return to the child he was but instead decides to “put on the skins of all my dead ones, / to dress with rottenness my feeble flesh / and outlast myself in the mask of death.”5 From that moment forward, Macbeth’s destructive course is set.

Although theatrically effective, Buljan’s production veers dangerously close to homophobia due to its repeated use of man-on-man (and man-on-male corpse) sex as a shorthand for depravity, the sickness of society as a whole, and the ultimate humiliation of the title character. One might generously conclude

that this is an unintentional consequence of cross-gender casting (after all, the cast is composed of six men and two women, one of whom plays a man). Nevertheless, the maleness of the aggressors is never disguised; more often than not, it is highlighted by the actors’ cargo pants and sleeveless undershirts. The enthusiastically consensual sex between Duncan and the power-hungry Lady Macbeth only makes the implications of the other sexual encounters more disturbing.

Nevertheless, Macbeth After Shakespeare is a powerful production. With modest production elements and a talented cast, Buljan has created a lean, brutal interpretation of Müller’s play. The simple set, powerful, saturated lights, and spare but evocative costume design create a visceral experience of the disposability and devaluation of human life. Emblematic of this savvy design is the monarch’s crown, constructed on the body of each actor out of brown packaging tape. This choice sharply mocks the institution of the monarchy and the power that goes with it. At its root, the crown and the king are just as disposable and easily consumed as the feast that the cast and audience devour and scatter across the stage at Macbeth’s coronation.

In Müller’s Macbeth, the world was already out of joint long before the titular king’s crime, and will inevitably be so long after his death. This future is a vision so horrifying that in the final moments of the play; Duncan’s son, restored to his throne, can only look around him in terror before crying out in English, “I’m going back to England!!” and fleeing into the lobby. Buljan’s production is not beautiful, though it is often striking to look at. Indeed, it was far from beautiful. But as the play went on, as Macbeth was left stripped nude and vulnerable by the witches, as we watched the carnage and the violation, and agony unfolded before us, tears came from our eyes. And yet, we felt no pain.

Slavic and European Performance, Volume32, no. 1; Spring 2012/Winter 2013


1. This review has been adapted from a capsule review that Shari Perkins published on her website: Shari. Perkins, “Impromptu: Macbeth After Shakespeare Dramaticimpulse (blog, December 14, 2011, 12/14impromptu-macbeth-after-shakespeare/.

2. Ivica Buljan, email to the author, February 14, 2012.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid..

5. Ivica Buljan, director’s notes, program for Macbeth After Shakespeare, December 10, 2011.

6. Heiner Müller, quoted in Jonathan KaIb, The Theatre of Heiner Müller (New York: Limelight Editions, 2001), 15.

7. Heiner Müller, Macbeth After Shakespeare, trans. Carl Weber, manuscript emailed to the author by Ivica Buljan, December 2.3, 2011.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.