Birnam Wood Finds Tongues in Trees

lucy rupert and maev beaty
photo by lindsay anne black
In Allyson McMackon’s Director’s Notes for Theatre Rusticle’s production of Birnam Wood, which plays at Theatre Passe Muraille from March 18th to the 27th, 2010 she wrote: “I wondered if the woods could show us their dreams and their memories, what those dreams and memories would be.” Set designer Lindsay Anne Black transformed the Passe Muraille stage into an intricately magical woodland dream world out of which the cast of Birnam Wood emerged as dryads, the spirits of the trees that play such a decisive role in shaping the destiny of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s doomed Scottish King. The play explores the effects of humanity on the forest, as the dryads recreate and imitate the behaviour they see emanating from Dunsinane.
The result is a visually intricate and striking piece of physical theatre that focuses on movement and lyrical poetry to capture the haunting images and memories in Macbeth and how the naive wood spirits are corrupted and lose their innocence when they find themselves unexpectedly complicit to a bloodbath of horror. The imagery throughout this piece is fascinating in its ability to probe Shakespeare’s meaty text and creatively draw out so many of the playwright’s themes and to make surprising and interesting connections which emphasize how timeless Macbeth’s quest for power and his struggle to keep it really are.
The dryads begin with an impulse to connect with one another and the six performers express the spirits’ wonder, joy and surprise as they explore a myriad of unconventional ways for two bodies to find intimacy with one another. As their relationships become more complex, a hierarchy emerges which comes to centre on the acquisition of a crown and the allocation of power between the men and the women who love them. The idea of myth and storytelling is also explored as monologues about 14 foot tall heroes and needless and powerfully excessive butchery emphasize how tightly violence is woven into the human experience. At the same time, as their innocence unravels, the dryads also vividly express the consequences of paranoia, fear and guilt which cause Macbeth’s world to spiral out of control and leads to his eventual and ultimate downfall.
The six performers in Birnam Wood are truly magical in their ability to evoke so much of the essence of Shakespeare’s play without using his words and relying so heavily on their bodies to communicate often subtle and very dense ideas to the audience. Hume Baugh for me captured the regal spirit of King Duncan and his ability to command the space and speak with eloquence and authority. Lucy Rupert was often reminiscent of Lady Macbeth as she began throwing mice across the wood by their tails, propelling the male dryads to action as she assaults his masculinity asking if he is “a man or a mouse” and finally she throws herself on his back, as though she is a burden that he must either heave along as he slogs toward his goals or eradicate and destroy so he can reach success alone. The other three performers as dryads are more fluid in their ability to reflect the experiences and imagery associated with a myriad of different characters. Matthew Romantini and Wesley Connor are both grounded and expressive with a beautiful talent for eloquent movement. Maev Beaty’s dryad seems so fragile, it is as though she could snap as easily as a twig, and Beaty is sensitive and tragic as she calls out to the male dryad who sums up her worth in a To Do List of chores as she says repeatedly: “Item 1: Love me.” Viv Moore is, quite simply, a revelation. Her performance is both nuanced and physically exquisite.
Birnam Wood is not a piece of theatre that thrusts epiphanies about Shakespeare’s play into its audience’s lap, but one that requires a thoughtfulness and willingness for the viewer to contemplate the images and the rhetoric that the performers are offering. At times I felt confused, but never so much that I felt alienated or frustrated because visually the piece has its own strong aesthetic. Ultimately, I was drawn into these trees and enchanted by their sprightly dryads and I was disturbed to remember how easily and frequently humanity infringes on nature as we, as in Macbeth, hack apart the trees in our own quest for greatness.
Theatre Rusticle’s Birnam Wood plays at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) from March 18th-27th. For tickets call the box office at 416.504.7529 or go online at www.passemuraille.on.ca.

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