Q&A with Director Wilem Powell on ‘Macbeth’ and Terrorism

We are always trying to breathe new life into old things, constantly reinterpreting things in light of new events, trying to make sense and align historical events with the present, and this has been the inspiration for director Wilem Powell’s reworking of the classic Shakespearean work, Macbeth. You can see the Drama Society’s production of Macbeth from Fri 6th – Sun 8th March. Tickets can be purchased on the door or from the YUSU website. For more information, visit the Drama Society’s website.


Q: How are you revamping Macbeth? A: It’s been hard to explain and I’ve had to explain it to my cast so many times that I’ve started using mundane phrases but… Essentially in the historical context of this play, Shakespeare is writing while James I is king and in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot by Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, arguably Britain’s first terrorist. One angle of looking at this period is as a reign of terror under James I for Catholics who were persecuted due to their religion. I think this is still contextually relevant to the modern day and our conception of terrorism. In this production, the two worlds collide. Set in the modern day in an unnamed anti-terror organisation, we have transposed the play whilst still keeping the key issues it flags up about terrorism and our attitude to it in society; the ambiguity and uncertainty of what to think. Take our lead Macbeth, who starts out as the hero enforcing Duncan’s regime but eventually creates his own regime of terror. And even before that, the play starts out with a rebellion that needs quashing. How are we meant to feel about this? I want to probe the ambiguities that really lie with terrorism – it isn’t just black and white.


Q: What did you do to understand the characters in light of a modern conception of terrorism? A: We looked at music, more specifically political hip-hope. We also wanted to explore motivation for murder so listened to accounts from murderers, as this is something Shakespeare never really explores and takes as a given. What we found was a big ‘us and them’ feeling needed to fuel the terrorism drive. A sound bit from an American soldier essentially said that the army needed racism as much as needed artillery and weapons to drive the war on terror. It needed to feed this idea of difference as justification for their actions.


Q: What adaptations have you made to convey your angle? A: I’m planning on having a TV on the stage and a camera looped to it, feeding a live image of the actors. It’s this idea of our ‘CCTV society’, the oppression of surveillance but also the accountability that the actors have to the audience and the stage. But whether I’ll be able to get this to work is another thing! The setting will seem alien but awkwardly relatable – that ambiguity of knowing something but not knowing it at the same time.


Q: What about costumes? A: I’ve got the witches in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, that image that has become so potently associated with terrorism. The rest of the cast will be mainly a ‘suit and tie’ look; the authority that is produces but anonymity as well, just another guy in the suit contrasts with the accountability of the TV screens as these are the unseen people, the unaccountable.


Q: This is known otherwise as the ‘Scottish Play’ – has this element managed to stay? A: We’ve only kept the names Scottish. Macbeth isn’t hugely tied to Scotland for its plot so it makes it quite adaptable. Perhaps someone will use it for a concept about the Scottish referendum?


Q: Why do you care about this concept? A: I care about politics in general, be especially in plays. It shouldn’t be shoved down out throats, but should stimulate us to question what we know. Islamaphobia and attitudes to terrorism are so homogenous therefore we need to question this as a society. If you go to a debate, someone already has a point of view but you don’t generally enter a play with strong opinions, so you are more likely to take in everything and think about it in a more general sense. The idea came to me when I was talking to my mum and about my bonfire night plans, and I explained that I had strong aversion to what the night stood for. Ironically, it sparked the idea in my head that not much has really changed since the gunpowder plot – our unhealthy attitude to terrorism hasn’t changed over time.


Q: Have you included the issue of Islamaphobia? A: Working with a very white cast made that element hard to incorporate and I would want to do it justice if I did. It’ll be interesting to see the how the aesthetics of the white female actors playing the witches will work in the orange boiler suits. The angle is more about the narrow mindedness we have regarding terrorism than the globally political issue of Islamaphobia. Terrorism has become an issue rather than a consequence but we should look at it as a reaction to our global behaviour. Hatred creates hatred and terrorism behaves in the same way.


Q: Have there been any other plays about the war on terror that you looked at to help you? A: I looked at Osama the Hero by Dennis Kelly – I know, a pretty contentious title right? It looks more at the Islamaphobia branch of terrorism but still includes the social attitude that I’m trying to get at. I looked at Equivocation by Bill Cain too.


Q: What’s that about? A: It’s a hypothetical play set in the Jacobean times, in which the government at the time as Shakespeare to write a history about the gunpowder plot. Equivocation itself is a really interesting topic, I mean, Henry Garnet wrote a whole book about it.


Q: There doesn’t seem to be many plays about terrorism, does there? A: No, it’s probably because it’s too sensitive an issue at the moment. You see it more in music and art – it’s not a commercial subject but you seem to be able to get away with it more if you’re underground.


Q: But being underground means that issue won’t reach as many people. Do you think that Macbeth is a good vector for getting your message across? A: I suppose having the term ‘terrorism’ in the title might put people off coming to the play. It’s a seduction really. I’ve said before that Macbeth’s conservative nature makes it open to interpretation which gives you a lot of freedom. Hopefully my concept, masquerading behind Shakespeare, will get people in and be strong enough to get people questioning but subtle enough to not be preaching. Outreach is my main aim, to get people talking.


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