When Ariane Mnouchkine last staged a play by William Shakespeare thirty years ago she chose to highlight the distance separating the text from the audience by locating the action in an imaginary feudal setting that was part Elizabethan England and part Edo Japan. Les Shakespeare (1981–84), which included Richard II, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV, was widely acclaimed at the time, yet discordant voices criticized the lack of overt politicization, claiming that the production could be pigeonholed as an aesthetic experience. In her 2014 staging of Macbeth, on the other hand, Mnouchkine attempted to show how the text was directly relevant today by locating it in a contemporaneous setting.
In France, the Théâtre du Soleil, founded as a worker’s collective in 1964, is held in particularly high esteem for providing an experience unlike that which is on offer in the network of state-subsidized national and regional theatres. This experience begins with the journey to the theatre on the company’s rickety old bus, and continues with a greeting from Mnouchkine in person at the door. The audience then enters a foyer area that is redesigned for each production. For Macbeth, a large portrait of Shakespeare was painted on the wall opposite the door; on the other walls were the names of the open-air theatres in Shakespeare’s day, but also billposters for landmark productions of the play: Edmund Kean’s for one, a Kabuki version for another. But as I sat drinking a suitably themed “witches beer” to wash down a rather less Scottish summer vegetable salad, I was quizzical. Was this installation intended to stake a claim for the universality of Shakespeare by underlining the fact that his plays have been produced all over the globe (no pun intended), or rather that each era and culture is required to find the tools to translate the texts, to adapt them to their own situation? Considering the company’s history—a history I was prompted to consider given that 2014 marked the Théâtre du Soleil’s fiftieth anniversary—I was tempted to go with the second reading.
On the way to my seat I walked past another installation: a round table had been set up for a meeting between the French government and the main trade unions. A short note explained that it was necessary for all sides to renegotiate the controversial reforms to the labor laws governing the performing arts industry. In this installation, I recognized the company’s trademark political engagement, which has seen it launch campaigns for [End Page 115] asylum seekers and against human rights abuses in China. And as intimidating figures reminiscent of special forces operatives pulled down the curtain for the performance to begin, I was thus considering the state of affairs on the French stage and reflecting how Shakespeare might be read to comment on national and global political situations. Mnouchkine then took us not to a muddy field in rain-drenched Scotland, but to a sun-scorched, ochre battleground that might have been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or Mali. Duncan listened to a radio report of victory over the rebels, which sounded strangely like a sports bulletin, and Macbeth encountered three curious speaking heads set in the rock, as at Mount Rushmore.
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At this point I thought that Mnouchkine was suggesting that Macbeth’s bloodthirstiness was the result of posttraumatic stress experienced in modern warfare. However, this reading was not supported by what followed. Indeed, there was a touch of the Windsor’s public relations, a touch of the Grimaldi’s Monaco, and a large dose of the Elysée Palace under Nicolas Sarkozy in Mnouchkine’s Scotland. Duncan was murdered during a black-tie dinner party; Banquo’s ghost later appeared during a gala event; Macbeth tried to unwind by watching sports on television and was tormented by the witches’ visions of the future in YouTube videos. It seemed then that Mnouchkine was...