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Bringing Macbeth to Bedlam asylum


When the Folger Theatre in Washington DC, USA, opens its 2018/19 season on September 4, audiences will be in for a huge surprise.

The curtains will open for a 24-performance run of Shakespeare's Macbeth – So far, so predictable you might think.

But this will be a radically different play to the version most audiences are familiar with.

Set in London's Bedlam asylum, this Restoration-era version will feature singing and dancing that takes the famous Scottish play into “semi-operatic” territory, according to Richard Schoch, from Queen's University, Belfast.

Macbeth cover
From the Sir William Devenant production.

The production will be the highlight of an international research project, Performing Restoration Shakespeare, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Queen's University Belfast.

Currently in year two of three, the project has brought together scholars and performing artists from several institutions to explore how Restoration versions of Shakespeare were originally performed – and how they can be performed again today.

“When these versions of Shakespeare's works were first performed in 1660 they were some of the first plays to be staged since the theatres were re-opened after their closure by the puritans in 1642,” says Professor Schoch.

“A whole generation had grown up without access to theatre. In that time, King Charles II had lived in continental Europe and seen European theatre, with its actresses playing female roles, big scenery – and music.

“Now he was back and he was right behind this celebration of everything theatre could do: Bigger and better than anything that had been put on before.”

The versions being performed were written by William Davenant, an English poet and playwright, who claimed to be Shakespeare's godson.

As well as adding music and scenery, his versions of Shakespeare's plays also made changes to their plots, and even invented new scenes.

For example, King Lear and Cordelia don't die and the play is no longer a tragedy. In the Tempest, Miranda has a sister; and in Macbeth there is a new scene between Lady Macbeth and Macduff.

The seventeenth century London diarist Samuel Pepys called the unusual combination of tragic intensity, music, and dancing in Davenant's work a "strange perfection."

“When we were first studying these works we knew that we wouldn't be able to truly make sense of them without seeing them performed in front of an audience,” says professor Schoch.

“We started off in the library; in the archive. But then we wanted to push what we learned there forward along with musicologists, theatre historians – as well as actors and performers.

“We wanted to see how we could make these pays compelling for modern audiences in the light of what we had learned.”

3 frontispiece illustrations
Just a few of the ellaborate frontispiece illustrations.

One of the most radical aspects of the project is that scholars from several disciplines have been embedded from the start, right through rehearsals and will be there up to the opening night.

“This is really innovative,” says Professor Schoch. “The performance arises from continual dialogue between academics and actors – the performance is a reflection of that dialogue. We are also working in feedback from performances we did at the Globe in London in 2017.”

For their part, the actors involved found the work offered a fresh perspective on plays they thought that they knew very well – and in some cases had performed many times before.

“In a rehearsal room, you know when it’s right,” says Professor Schoch.

He believes that the production is in itself a research activity – as well as an output and an impact event.

“There is also an economic output as ticket sales are doing very well!” he says.

Professor Schoch hopes to use the project to prove the value of close integration between scholars and performers, and change long-term the way theatre companies approach this kind of work.

Through the Folger Theatre the project team has access 40 theatres and two million interested subscribers and it will be making available a Restoration Theatre Enrichment Pack.

“We want to 'evangelise' about this work and show that they are worth performing,” says Professor Schoch. “And we want to advocate for embedding scholars in the production.

“We hope to set out a model and encourage others to take it forward.”

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