The Tragedy of MacBeth

MacBeth has claimed another victim. Pitt St Theatre’s production of the infamous Shakespearean play is one of many shows to be cancelled or postponed due to covid. In this article director John Goudge sums up his thoughts after working more than a year on the project.  Photography by Bernadette Fastnedge.

Grae Burton and Catherine Falstie-Jensen as MacBeth and Lady MacBeth

We are but toys –

It promised to be a spectacular production (if I do say so myself).

Tonight would have been opening night (18 March, 2022). One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to change the poster wording from ‘postponed’ to ‘cancelled’ (for now).

Putting on theatre isn’t easy, let alone MacBeth. Being creative can be hard, and we all know that. But we didn’t expect this. Not covid.

Everyone in the theatre community has been impacted- at least one other production of MacBeth (Kerikeri) has been canned in recent months. Our team bravely took the news with grace and understanding; with the compassion to give up what they love to protect what they love. Bravo!

Family Connections and Pitt Street

Concept planning for MacBeth at Pitt St Theatre began in 2020, but the seeds were planted much earlier.

I first dipped my toes into directing in 1993 at Titirangi Theatre. Meanwhile my brother-in-law Geoff Allen

was creating a theatre career; first in Taranaki, then later as Devonport Drama. By then we had already

collaborated on Geoff’s play Vincent and Theo, and in Twelfth Night, when we acted together as Feste and

Sir Andrew. (He was the taller one.)

In 2012 Geoff cast me as Vincent in his play Mrs Van Gogh for Galatea Theatre. It was a humbling experience

to play such an iconic figure. And with Geoff I was working with a man who could not only write a play about

Van Gogh, he could paint like him too!

A year later I was directing and he was producing Galatea’s production of Hamlet at the Maidment’s

Musgrove Theatre. Buoyed by our success, we thought we should do it again some-day. So when Geoff became a host at an inner Auckland theatre venue and asked if I could help out, I jumped at the chance.

The theatre has loads of character. I’ve seen many shows there, predominantly for Pilgrim Productions, a society with Methodist ties operating from the “Theatre Pitt” for decades. My father, Rev. Stan, was the first president of Pilgrim, and my mum Marie was in the first show, Ride Ride. I have many links with the building and the adjoining Pitt St Methodist Church, with family faces staring at me from photos in the church corridors.

The Inspiration for MacBeth

The witches manipulate MacBeth like a toy - 
Talia Parker, Catherine Maunsell, Kate Watson, with Grae Burton

Immediately my mind was racing to make a Shakespeare happen at Pitt Street - perhaps an annual one! But which one? I didn’t think too hard. When I look at the theatre I see a banquet hall. Many Shakespeare plays have banquet scenes, but surely the most memorable is when MacBeth sees the ghost of murdered Banquo in his chair.

MacBeth is a slow-motion, quirky, scary, trainwreck. If any play demonstrates tragedy - the inexplicable, irresistible draw to self-destruction - MacBeth is it.

I was taken by the number of references to fate. The witches manipulate MacBeth like a toy; in war, soldiers are played like chess pieces; Lady MacBeth is the puppeteer behind MacBeth’s ambition. Even the witches are controlled like dolls by the goddess Hecate.

I was drawn by the idea that all the props should be toys or games, and the set should include a spooky playground.

The theme appealed. Suddenly the war at the opening became boys playing with toys. And it allowed the witches to be more playful – to spring out of the pages and into the audience; interactive, warped versions of real women who once existed.

My imagination started to run amok. First Witch appears on a swing, staring inanely at the audience like a doll; Second Witch brings cup-cakes to audience members; Third Witch arrives riding a shopping trolley of garbage and musical instruments.

MacBeth it was – a three-week season with a professional cast and crew, all to be paid, later, when the ticket money came in.

The Goddess Hecate, played by Andrea  Gerstenmaier

The Curse

I’ve never been super superstitious, but I’ve always honoured the backstage traditions –

no whistling backstage, don’t say “good luck,” don’t put shoes on the dressing table,

and of course, don’t say MacBeth.

On beginning this project I vowed I couldn’t say “that Scottish play” on every mention,

but I thought as long as I didn’t say the word backstage, then it would be alright.

Saying “MacBeth” in a theatre is considered bad luck, and there are several stories

claiming to explain why. Most are about tragic accidents during productions, but another

theory suggests when a theatre company puts on MacBeth, it’s a sign it is desperate for

cash and needs ‘bums on seats.’

Certainly most of our company are richly ‘income poor,’ but our motivation comes from

wanting to produce brilliant works of art. We agree whole-heartedly to pursue our art

form with the hope of some loose change. Indeed, theatre has always been a craft where

you earn whatever the audience brings.

So it was with Pitt St Theatre’s MacBeth – a September Shakespeare 2021.

This was year two of covid. After a brilliant run of no community cases for 177 days, a surprise lockdown was announced with a new outbreak – 27 February.

I remember the date because a new theatre improvisation troupe I was part of had its first performance that night. After the show the excited crowd exited to receive the news via their mobile phones on the driveway. Their faces fell. Talk about a mood killer!

On the following Monday, I was to rebegin drama tutoring at Titirangi Theatre – already the year was frustratingly like the year before. Uncertainty fell on MacBeth before it had begun.

Casting and Rehearsals

Luckily, by the time auditions came around, it looked like covid would be kept at bay. Naïve, I guess, but I was fully immersed in finding a cast, and producer Geoff in finding some skirrets of funding to put the show on.

Auditions are like a job interview on steroids. Shakespeare demands excellent actors who can be as dramatic as thunder, and subtle as the merest breath of wind. Thankfully there was a plethora of good talent to choose from.

I think making these choices is probably more nerve-wracking for the director than for the actors. Aswell as everything else, which actors would play multiple roles needed to be considered. It’s gut-wrenching to have to disappoint so many good people, but it’s wonderful to finally sit down 15 enthusiastic actors to begin rehearsing.

Casting is like a jig-saw puzzle – the pieces generally fall into place. I say generally, because there were a couple of cast changes early on, which threw us an initial bump, but then we were away again, working the beast of a script, with Grae Burton as MacBeth heading a stellar cast.

The cast - (front row from left)  Talivale Papalii, Andy Seagar, Joshua Bruce, Crystelle L'Amie,
Catherine Falstie-Jensen, Richard Purro, Grae Burton, Romain Mereau, John Way
(back row) Talia Parker, Raymond Vinten, Catherine Maunsell, Kate Watson, Calum Hughes, Andrea Gerstenmaier
Rehearsal action - Lady MacBeth swoons, supported by Crystelle L'Amie, with Raymond Vinten as Lennox looking on.

Pitt St Theatre is an old building and in mid-winter evening it gets cold. (Pleased to say the theatre has now installed a full heating and cooling system to keep both audience and cast comfy.) Often the cast and crew combined to haul rostra from the basement up into the theatre for rehearsal, and then quickly deconstructing it afterwards. Our team was small but willing, so we all mucked in. Rehearsals were fast paced, with loads of work needing to be achieved each session. Saturdays were a long rehearsal day, with lunch provided by volunteers for the cast and crew.

Tackling Shakespeare is like peeling an onion – there’s layers. Unlocking each layer is one part frustration and two parts delight. There is something about the language that reveals extra depth. Each scene, each moment is waiting to be discovered. It’s huge.

Without complaint the cast and crew made this monster come alive, piece by piece. The gratitude I have for them is immeasurable. I want to list them all here and boast about their talents, including my partner Kathy, who heads our costume team. She’s been through every stage of this thing with me.

Forward to three weeks before opening. We had sold a good number of tickets already (thanks so much to those supporters). All the pieces were in place, but we’ve only staggered through the entire play in one-go once.

Another lockdown – we are back into Alert Level Four. It’s the Delta variant of the virus. Expletive!

Delta

Live performance is right at the bottom of industries allowed under covid restrictions. I currently describe my profession as ‘gathering people closely together and have a bunch of actors shout and spit at them.’

MacBeth never recovered, but we didn’t know it then. The worst thing was the play kept kicking for

months on end. How long would the lockdown be? After a week unable to rehearse we decided to

postpone more than six weeks to 29 October.

Online we continued a further five weeks with minimum rehearsal. Each week we listened to the government announcements, hoping for a drop in alert level, but in Auckland it stubbornly remained high as the new variant spread.

I used the time to finalise an original soundtrack, comprising 46 different pieces of music. I would listen

and visualise the lighting and action, then alter each several times to get the imagined timing right.

The cast worked at home to cement the lines in their heads, each week waiting to see what the following would hold. On our zoom sessions we remained supportive and strong for each other, but you could see hope being squeezed out of the production.

It was time to call it. Another postponement was needed.

It would have to be MacBeth, March 2022.

Costume lead Kathy Lowe shares a look with rehearsal assistant Kerensa MacKinnon during a touching moment at rehearsal

Plan C  Geoff and I knew it would be unlikely we would retain all our cast for the new dates. Several had work outside of Auckland and others had lifestyle changes. It’s true that all of us had suffered frustration and uncertainty, and it was going to require a boost in motivation for us all to ‘climb back on the horse.’ But the new dates promised to be right in the ‘sweet spot’ – Delta would be diminished, and the Scottish play with toy swords would be on again.

New Year 2021/22 was spent recasting several roles. But as soon as we had our cast confirmed, OMICRON loomed. The prediction from yet another Monday press conference was that in time we would have a thousand cases a day.

That prediction came true at about the time we would have rebegun rehearsals. It would have been a quick re-jogging of the lines, a making of some spooky lighting – run it, run it, and run it again, fully costume-clad, and on stage for a packed house on Friday 18 March 2022. That was the plan C. That was the dream. That was the culmination of dreams of more than 20 people.

On 23 January, the New Zealand Government announced the country would go back in ‘red light’ settings. The highly contagious Omicron variant had been detected in the community.

The curse of MacBeth had emerged again.

Curtains

The producer and I did some soul-searching, but not much. There was no way we were going to put the team through that uncertainty again. And our families, our elderly and our vulnerable needed to be protected. We pulled the plug.

Weeks later I still feel so sorry for everyone involved, to have worked so hard. I know we all learnt a lot from Mr Shakespeare, and each other, and I should be grateful for the experience. And I’m disappointed for the new cast members of the March season that never even got to work with their fellow actors.

In the six weeks since, multiple events around the country have been postponed or cancelled, so our pain is not in isolation. Other shows took to the stage, only to have members get sick or become ‘close contacts,’ and had to cancel part way through their seasons.

For those who live for the arts, it is a bitter blow, and most often a financial one. Much of our identities is tied up with performing. It’s our food, our happy place, our motivation and our mission. Without it, it can be hard to fathom what use we are.

So, here’s a shout out to all our theatre community. Hold tight. This will pass.

As for MacBeth at Pitt St, we remain hopeful we can stage our production in 2023. But I guess we too are manipulated by fate.

But as I said, I’m not super superstitious.

Romain Mereau as Banquo
encounters the witches with his friend MacBeth