Long before his hefty older self was hawking wine on television – even before his younger self was lured to Hollywood to create the groundbreaking Citizen Kane – youthful Orson Welles was shaking up the theatre world with innovative productions of stage plays including The Cradle Will Rock, Julius Caesar, and especially, Macbeth. The latter 1936 production featured an all-black cast of mostly amateur actors, was set on a Caribbean island evoking Haiti, and featured ritualistic drumming and witches performing voodoo. The legendary Harlem-based production has come to be known as the “Voodoo Macbeth,” and it is one of a string of creative works in the late 1930s that made Welles’ reputation as a boy genius and the ultimate auteur.
“He was always striving to do something that no one had done before,” says Jack Marshall, artistic director of The American Century Theater in Arlington, which is staging its Welles’-inspired Voodoo Macbeth through April 13th. “He wanted theater to be exciting, rather than safe, to never allow the audience to be passive spectators.”
Voodoo Macbeth is TACT’s fourth Welles’-inspired production over its 19-year history. Dedicated to bringing twentieth century American works to contemporary audiences, Marshall says he especially looks for neglected works and authors who deserve to be rediscovered and treasured by today’s theatre-goers. Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth, now 75 years old, is in that category. Few if any theatres attempt it because of the enormity of the challenge and of Welles’ distinctive legacy.
“There’s an inherent problem with doing any of Welles’ works, especially the Macbeth,” Marshall says. “You literally cannot recreate it, and if you tried, it would be a massive bust. He was doing something revolutionary. You can’t be true to his spirit by doing the same thing.”
Marshall knew he had to find a director who would honor Welles’ creative, no-holds-barred approach, while also putting his or her distinctive stamp on Voodoo Macbeth. The person who immediately came to mind was Kathleen Akerley, who directed TACT’s production of On the Waterfront in 2012.
“She’s the most courageous and Welles-like director in the area,” Marshall declares. “I said, ‘I’m going to give you Welles’ script [which cut many lines, de-emphasized Lady Macbeth, and spotlighted the obscure Hecate], and you come up with a Macbeth that accomplishes the goals he set out with, without duplicating what he did.’”
As Akerley began her work, two things stood out in particular: How Welles’ had placed a spotlight on an under-represented group of people (in this case African-Americans) and how he had found in voodoo the fearful imagery that Shakespeare’s witches must have evoked in those first Jacobean audiences.
“The problem was to find a form of magic that works for today,” Akerley says. “We’re used to voodoo. It’s no longer scary...what would represent the kind of horror and fatigue that Welles’ audience felt?”
The answer was to make the witches part of the natural world, not separate from it. Setting her production in Scotland 20 years from now, Akerley’s “witches” are members of an American military unit stationed abroad whose interest in local shamanistic traditions – including self-mutilation – threatens to destabilize their mission, or worse.
“We are more scared by what comes from within ourselves now” than at the time Welles was working, Akerley suggests. “If your own people can turn on you, that could be more frightening than anything from outside.”
While Akerley’s choice for Lady Macbeth will come as a surprise, the context of a destabilized world – in this case, crumbling European states – will be familiar to readers of Shakespeare’s play. Unlike Welles, who used 104 largely inexperienced actors, Akerley has cast 13 experienced actors “who will ask me questions about all of my choices.” Therefore, Akerley says, every word and action has to make sense.
History suggests Welles was less concerned with that. The 20-year-old auteur appears to have been most interested in simply seeing his ideas play out onstage and then watching audiences’ visceral reactions to them.
“Every play was a giant superstructure on which to hang toys and elements and shocks and jolts that would make an audience stand up and pay attention,” Artistic Director Marshall says. “You should see this and get a sense of what theater is meant to be – something that gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline running.”