Toil and trouble: Londoners spotlight humor in Macbeth

Actors From the London Stage return to Vassar for the 18th time to perform Shakespeare. The actors will bring elements of humor into their unique five-person rendition of “Macbeth.” Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Actors From the London Stage return to Vassar for the 18th time to perform Shakespeare. The actors will bring elements of humor into their unique five-person rendition of “Macbeth.” Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Actors From the London Stage return to Vassar for the 18th time to perform Shakespeare. The actors will bring elements of humor into their unique five-person rendition of “Macbeth.” Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations

Five actors performing a Shakespeare play–how does that work? Actors From The London Stage, one of the oldest touring Shakespeare theater companies in the world, might have an answer to that question. Supported by the Dean of the Faculty, the company will be performing Macbeth at Vassar College, February 26-28. The performances are free and open to the public. Each show begins at 8 pm in the Martel Theater of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film. Reservations are required and will be accepted beginning February 10.

Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS) is an educational theater company of British actors touring in the United States. Based at the University of Notre Dame, AFTLS presents two nationwide tours per year during both the fall and spring semesters. Before each tour, a troupe of 5 actors come together in London to devise and design a Shakespeare piece. They then go on tours to the U.S., offering weeklong residencies of both performances and in-class workshops at approximately 8 to 10 colleges and universities.

The actors hail from major British theater companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre of Great Britain and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. According to Notre Dame’s website on AFTLS, the program’s mission is “to make exciting Shakespeare, performed by fine professional actors, available and affordable to American colleges and universities in the context of an extraordinary, weeklong teaching experience.”

AFTLS’s visits to Vassar can be dated back to the year of 1997. Numerous faculty members of the Drama Department have facilitated bringing AFTLS to Vassar, including Professor of Drama Denise Walen and Associate Professor of Drama Shona Tucker. Associate Professor of English, Zoltan Markus was one of the faculty members who proposed to host an AFTLS residency at Vassar this year. AFTLS has visited Vassar six times in the past, performing plays performed by the company include As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale.

This time, the decision to perform Macbeth was made a year or two in advance. Five freelance actors came to AFTLS solely to work on this project. Most of them hadn’t met prior to rehearsals. Without a pre-existing concept in mind, the actors created the piece through organic and spontaneous rehearsals.

Joanna Bending, one of the five actors playing in the production, shared their artistic goals. “In essence, this is a collaborative, simple but fun process forcing us to strip the play back to its bare bones. Amazing where imagination springs from when there is no special effects, no elaborate costumes, just ideas, a modicum of silliness, let’s call that juvenile enthusiasm and Shakespeare of course!”

Michael Palmer, who will be playing Macbeth in this production, also pointed out that the performance itself could be part of the creation and production. “The main issue for myself, I play Macbeth, is its sheer complexity. If one focusses on, for example, his ‘vaulting ambition’ one could leave out his indecision. Too much warrior, not enough of the poet. As the play goes on he becomes in his own words, ‘bear like’. At the same time he is also part philosopher, bully, optimist, pessimist, even nihilist. As an actor the only way I am finding to do this is to play each moment for its full worth and trust the author. Fortunately he was a genius so doing that is easy.” He wrote in an email statement.

He continued, “he best goal I think we can achieve is that audiences of all ages, experience and expectations can enjoy a great evening at the theatre.”

Charlie Amstrong, who will be playing Macduff in the production have similar expectations for the piece. “I hope it will be engaging and fun to watch for the first-time viewer and also for audience members who have seen multiple productions. I hope it’ll be a fresh and original experience for our audience.”

Besides the play performances, AFTLS also collaborates with faculty members to provide in-class workshops. Walen said that these workshops are engaging and interactive. Students in various classes would be able to work together with one or two actors in smaller groups. Markus noted, “These classroom sessions are designed to enhance the students’ knowledge beyond the discussed subject matter as well as to develop their verbal, rhetorical, and communication skills.”

The educational value of these workshops for Drama and English students are self-evident. Walen commented, “They do brilliant work in the drama and English class rooms to help students understand Shakespeare, but not only to understand his plays, but also to make them enjoyable and engaging, not dry and hard.”

At the same time, AFTLS is both willing to and adept at extending their pedagogical influence to disciplines not traditionally associated with Shakespeare. During this residency, as Markus introduces, they will be conducting workshops for classes not only in English and Drama, but also in Greek and Roman Studies, History/Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, and Women Studies.

Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for the Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) initiative, Ariel Nereson is responsible for the coordination of the AFTLS residency, providing administrative and promotional work to help this visit become a reality. According to the CAAD website, CAAD is a new initiative at Vassar that aims to foster collaboration among different forms of arts, as well as between the arts and other fields. With such a goal in mind, Nereson worked to reach out to different disciplines and communities on and beyond campus.

As she introduces, all performances are free and open to the pubic. Students from the Exploring College (EC) program will also come to see Macbeth on Friday, Feb. 27.  And a special workshop for these EC students will take place on Saturday at Poughkeepsie High School.  There’s also a special AFTLS workshop for cadets from the United States Military Academy and Vassar students.

Nereson also thinks that the benefits of such a residency is multi-disciplinary. “One of the things I hope we achieve with this residency is to demonstrate the versatility of the arts. So the work that the artists are doing is really applicable to a variety of disciplines, and especially not only the product of what they do, but the process – how they work as a collaborative team and how they generate creative ideas. I think those are processes and skill sets that are really beneficial to the entire campus, regardless of your major.”

Three of the actors unanimously emphasized the humor of the production. Palmer stated, “The story – which we have worked very hard to make clear – is exciting, the lines are profound and beautiful even shocking, and it is also a funny play. There are, and should be, plenty of laughs.”

As the touchstone of British literature, Shakespeare’s cultural significance probably goes without saying. But in the eyes of Walen, there has been a decline in the recognition and influence of Shakespeare, and companies like AFTLS may help draw more attention to England’s national poet.

She concluded, “Whenever AFTLS comes to visit, it kind of revitalizes interests in his work, which I think it’s a benefit to us. Not only because his language is amazing, but his insights into human nature are so important as well. So the opportunity to re-engage interests in Shakespeare and his complex works is really great.”

One Comment

  1. Back from tonight’s performance. Shakespeare is alive and well!
    For newcomers and experienced Shakespeare performers alike, I would say, “take notice:” Charlie Armstrong speaks Shakespeare’s words and phrases, with proper pausing, volume, inflection, and stressing,
    resulting in wonderful clarity, energy, and immediate and sustained communication with the audience–all
    this, as well as anyone I have ever heard “Speak Shakespeare.” I conduct workshops entitled, “Speaking
    Shakespeare,” and I would recommend ever actor at every level of talent and ability to attend his performances. The other four were nearly as good.
    Bravo Charlie!!

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