I found myself in the fortunate position of back-to-back theatre dates this week: Monday night saw Carrie Cracknell’s surreal and dystopian take on Macbeth at the Young Vic, whilst Tuesday took an excursion to the Emerald City, in the classic musical Wicked.
At first glance these two productions couldn’t be more disparate, connected only by my attendance. However, I humbly refuse to credit myself so highly and sought to find some other connections; perhaps attempting to justify my teasingly diverse interests?!
The most obvious parallel to draw is that both plays contain witches. In this circumstance, the three weird sisters Macbeth faces are presented as nothing more than vessels for magic out of their control. Their juttingly unnerving movements and nude, skintight costumes made these witches emotionless (and uncannily similar to the psychic in Minority Report with Tom Cruise, but this was probably an accidental bi-product.) Almost omnipresent, the sisters seem to enact Macbeth’s conscience; feeling when he feels, trembling when he does and menacingly distracting him as embodiments of his guilt.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to this predominantly silent, looming presence, is the undeniably ‘witchy’ presentation of Elphaba. You say “witch”, you think: green skin, a pointed black hat and a billowing cape, as she takes to the sky on her broomstick. What was out of the ordinary though, was the implication that these stereotypes came about by pure chance. Her green skin was a birth defect, the hat was a gift-cum-prank and the broomstick just happened to be at the receiving end of a levitation spell. Thus Elphaba becomes a trailblazer of magical fashion. The presentation of witches in Macbeth can’t be considered unexpected if the pointy hats are no longer seen as traditional, or the norm. Perhaps, in rejecting the ‘evil old hag’ characteristic, even something as globally popular as Wicked can be considered ‘avant-garde’.
Yet, having never been famously interested in the occult, I can’t claim the presence of witches to be a leading factor in my ticket buying habits. Under closer inspection, perhaps these two shows share more than just a London postcode.
A key story-telling tool used by this incarnation of Macbeth was music. In order to bring the long, unadorned, grey corridor set to life, interpretive dance, to thumping bass-driven music, was thrown in wherever possible. The company energetically threw themselves towards the audience, as the advancing trees of Birnam Wood, bringing an entire battle scene to life within the confines of the modestly sized stage. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Wicked also used music to narrate itself! The majestic explosion of notes within ‘Defying Gravity’ alone have ensured the show’s residence as one of the top ten longest running West End musicals. I plan to pursue singing lessons as of next week.
On a far less uplifting note, another similarity I teased out from both plays is the presence, in fact the leadership, of an under-qualified, over-reaching and unjust tyrant. Macbeth paves his way to power with murder; the Wonderful Wizard of Oz merely pretends, performs and imprisons any objectors. Both “great” men are eventually brought down by ghosts of their past, lingering both in their memories and, usually, in a spotlight, upstage of them!
Countering the sick pleasure I find in resenting and rejecting these corrupt male figures of authority, are the strong female characters in their shadows. Lady Macbeth dominates the play; she controls those around her, with a single touch flicking a switch to ‘power off’ her dinner guests, allowing her conversations with her husband to remain ‘aside’. Even in her mania, she remains oxymoronically controlled; “out damned spot” is brushed off, repressed, spoken over, truly highlighting her lack of remorse. Elphaba is an equally powerful female figure, both magically and morally. However, unlike Lady M’s undeniable villainy, Elphaba is proven to be far from wicked. The whole thing is a great, big, sugar-coated misunderstanding (as musicals ought to be.)
Yet, it is in Macbeth where just deserts are served, whilst the only just characters in Wicked are swept under the trapdoor, beneath the rug. Why then does an evening of Shakespearean tragedy inevitably leave one noticeably less peppy than an evening imported from Broadway? Do we ignore the ending and just remember the general vibe: sinister vs. sequinned?
Whatever the outcome, I strongly believe that Shakespearean drama should be just as accessible and widely enjoyed as the next big musical (minus a ‘kinky boot’ or two!) Give or take a few ‘thees’ and ‘-eths’, the similarities, particularly in character types, are undeniably present. To quote from Shakespeare himself: ‘if music be the food of love […]’ add some jazz hands to your play and it’s guaranteed success!