When shall we three meet again? In Wats? Markets? Or at CMU? What if the three witches of Macbeth were transformed into street children selling Jasmine flowers and all the Thanes became Thai politicians? How would this change our understanding of the famous Scottish play and how would it influence our understanding of current events in South East Asia? This is what we have been pondering for many months now. How to transplant the misty moors into tropical jungles. How to set Macbeth within the Kingdom of Thailand.
Macbeth is easily my favorite Shakespeare play. Of course I'm biased after acting the role of the First Witch, the Final Messenger and the doomed son of Macduff back in 7th grade. (Yes I still know almost all of my Witch’s lines.) For a number of years I have fantasized about being able to produce the play and this fall with an odd mix of luck and persistence I managed to convince the Faculty of Humanities to allow me to Co-direct Macbeth for the English Club’s annual play (and indeed the only play to be performed in English each year on CMU’s campus).
We gathered in the monsoon season, otherwise known as the end of August, and presented the students with an edited script (60 pages down from 90). We played the human machine, freeze games, and held auditions. Our performance, fours shows over three days, took place on a mid-December weekend in the Faculty's main building: HB7 on the top floor auditorium – the same auditorium where I sat on stage months before for teacher appreciation day. Those are the bookends (minus the truly hilarious cast party with over fifty people that followed a week after the show). But what happened in between?
There is unfortunately no way that I can do those interim months justice. Instead I will attempt for snap shots only. There were the early meetings held in the garden where we rambled off into musings on corruption both local and national, and there were the hours spent pacing barefoot in empty classrooms running lines, re-running lines, holding impromptu Muay Thai boxing lessons and dance offs.
From our discussions the witches took on the appearance of street children selling jasmine flowers as we decided they were the ignored part of society who actually had a strong understanding of what was going on. On stage they would sew garlands, play with rubber band jump ropes, and off stage – before the show - they would sell flowers to the audience. The porter became a cleaning woman with bright orange gloves who polished the floors and the heads of audience members a like. The Thane of course became politicians. No specific names or titles were chosen for cautionary reasons.
For our backdrop a simple array of curtains was agreed upon. Color of course was a weighty decision as Red and Yellow are so clearly politically charged. Ultimately we cut and sewed strips of orange and black (Princeton style) that allowed us to be politically neutral and also related to our specific surroundings – tying into the stone walls of Chiang Mai’s old city and the robes of the multitude of monks that reside here. On the curtain we projected Thai inspired images and, during two scenes: the Witches final scene and Lady Macbeth’s death, we projected light from back stage so as to incorporate Thai shadow puppetry.
And not only did we apply Macbeth to Thailand, but we did the opposite and I found myself considering aspects of the play I had previously failed consider. For example why is it that the former Thane of Cawdor is declared a rebel? What did he actually do? Or, possibly the most striking realization – the Buddhist undertones of Macbeth’s most famous speech.
As the weeks progressed the dynamics subtly shifted. The actors’ confidence grew, the theater games became increasingly louder, more boisterous. Posters went up around campus and Macbeth T-shirts suddenly appeared for all involved.
Two weeks to show time our extended cast started to multiply. For weeks it had been just our small crew – cast and stage managers. Twenty people at most. But suddenly other students started appearing, just a few at first. As to their purpose I did not know. A week to go, we finally moved into the auditorium and even more students started appearing. They would fill up back rows and watch, talking quietly. Some would come bearing water coolers and large rectangular snack tins for the actors. The girl in charge of makeup came one afternoon and returned the following day with a team of six. Tuesday before the show I walked back stage in search of some particular actor and found the back hall filled with twenty underclassman sewing the orange and black curtains that would hang as our back drop – Where had they come from?! Two days left and there was suddenly a lights crew, a sound crew, a puppet crew, and still there were yet more students sitting in the back of the auditorium whose role I had yet to deduce. They turned out to be the ticket team, the film team, the passing-out program team. By opening night our band of twenty had swelled to one hundred strong.
And what of the performances? I spent the four shows standing in the back of the darkened theater alternately biting my nails and silently dancing in circles – to the amusement of the ticket team. Each show was better than the one previous. After the shows, at 11-pm, midnight we would head en mass to get fried pork, toast, milk drinks. We would discuss flash mobs, college life in Thailand and America, theater. It was like returning to college in the best way possible. There were no teachers or students in the end, just actors. We quoted Shakespeare at each other non-stop – in the theater, in the halls, on facebook walls. No one could say “see you tomorrow” without at least two or three others chiming in with “and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
I only wish that it was true and tomorrow we would all be still working on the play!