Shakespeare in a Shed

The week before last there was an article in the Toronto Star about secret entertainment venues. Secret bars—the kind that don’t have an external indication that they’re bars, or that you have to enter through a tailor shop as if you were Maxwell Smart—are so 2004, and it’s mildly disturbing that they seem to be catching on among Toronto hipsters only now. Secret theatre—performances in spaces not designed as theatres, accessible only by reservation—are another matter. Yes, there’s that Smirnoff Ice commercial in which a concert seems to be happening in the abandoned Lower Bay Street subway station, but I found that cool a little in spite of myself. And I’ve told you how interesting I found Shakespeare in the Subway. So when the article mentioned an upcoming performance called “Matchbox Macbeth” scheduled to occur in a shed, audience limited to twelve per performance, I had to check it out, even though it’s hard to say you’re much of a secret once you’ve been featured in Canada’s biggest newspaper.

I went to, where I was instructed to e-mail my details to learn the secret downtown location of the performance. Since attendance was limited to twelve, I listed a range of dates and was rewarded with an e-mail that told me the downtown street corner from which I would be picked up and taken to the shed. Now it was getting interesting. This would either be great fun or just too hip to live.

To get to the secret pickup location I had to take a streetcar at rush hour; I was convinced I would miss the rendezvous until I realized that half a dozen of my traveling companions were headed to the same spot. They turned out to be an energetic, engaging bunch of drama students from York University; hanging out with them was an unexpected pleasure. And we did have to hang out, because we arrived at the pickup corner, as instructed, half an hour before showtime. But finally we were led off—I won’t say how or where—to the shed. There we were greeted by a trampish figure in a bowler, shining a flashlight on himself and a hard that emerged from the shed holding a playing card. The tramp then declaimed, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Macbeth isn’t usually hallucinating when the play begins, but I was willing to go with it as we trooped into the shed, took our seats, and had blankets draped over our laps. Our minder had been very particular about those blankets. I only hoped they did not harbor bedbugs.

“Take me back to that shack #9,” the actors sang in a quasi-vaudeville opening. With only four performers, I guess the witches’ part had to be cut down, like everything else. In a staging like this, everything depends on how innovatively the company can make use of its limitations. Here, I thought the all-important physical space was used very effectively. With the audience of twelve lined up against the walls, the space between us was usable as the base of a T-shaped stage; the shed’s multiple doors allowed effective entrances and exits; a window in the back of the shed offered opportunities for offstage business, such as Lady Macbeth apparently burying Duncan behind the shed, that locus classicus for body disposal.

I thought the lighting, sound, and effects were major strengths of this pocket production. The lighting script was the most complicated aspect of the whole show; the many, many blackouts, sudden lights, dimmings of light, and so on actually became the narrative spine, which struck me as a really ingenious adaptation to the space. The flashlight-under-the-chin spook effect is pretty weary, but here it was an effective way to present Banquo’s ghost. The same goes for the lighting of the witches and the crystal ball in which Macbeth sees the heirs of Banquo.

The acting was also solid. Special props go to Antonio Sobretodo Jr., who played multiple roles including a Duncan who walked in on milk crates. After I stopped laughing I realized this was a surprisingly effective way to position the king above his subjects. Claire Wynveen was histrionic but not over the top as Lady Macbeth; one of the York U. students astutely pointed out that you could tell she was just a little drunk at Banquo’s Banquet. Subtle inflections, not overacted. Jaime Maczko was a subdued Macbeth, an effective choice because it enabled us to see how much of the play takes place in Macbeth’s head. Beckett specifies that a set for “Endgame” must have two windows, explicitly identified as metaphorical eyeholes, meaning that the play takes place inside a skull. Here, the shed was the skull and we were all in it, audience and players alike.

This production obviously had to take liberties with the text. I thought this was the least successful aspect of the adaptation. As I mentioned, it had quasi-vaudeville elements not found in Shakespeare (whatever his clowns got up to in unwritten improv), which didn’t really fit thematically and weren’t all that compelling in themselves. Since the performance was just an hour (yes, that brief hour when the players strut and fret upon the stage), even this shortest play of Shakespeare’s had to be cut. The famous soliloquies were chopped, and although I’m not at all in favor of experiencing Shakespeare as a wait for the Greatest Hits, there’s usually a reason for those words. If you do Lady Macbeth’s “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” without the terrifying lines “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” the loss in intensity is palpable (as is that if any thematic connection between Lady Macbeth and the unsexed Weird Sisters). However, those cuts pall by comparison with the omission of everything after Lady Macbeth’s mad scene. This is not a production in which Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and it’s much the poorer for that. All of the York U. students agreed with me on that point.

My final take? An interesting though only partly successful experiment; we can hope that together with Shakespeare on the Subway, Shakespeare in a Shed is the hopeful beginning of a renaissance of DIY Shakespeare by Toronto’s young actors.

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