“Grotesque fun” with Shakespeare: Macbeth Muet and the return of Surreal SoReal. A Fringe preview

Jérémie Francoeur in Macbeth Muet, Surreal SoReal Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Grotesque fun,” says Jon Lachlan Stewart. “There’s a lot of laughs in our production. And then there’s not….”

He’s talking about Macbeth Muet, a 60-minute version of Shakespeare’s swift and brutal tragedy that dismisses every Forsooth and Hark! like so much lint: it is completely text-free. Fair is foul, and both are silent.

The Surreal SoReal production that arrives at the Fringe this week from Montreal is the latest sighting of a talent, and a company that has, from the start, surprised the hell out of everyone.

Lachlan Stewart’s was one of those startling debuts, the kind that makes the Fringe grapevine light up. The buzz knocked the old Fringe greeting “so, have you seen …?” right off its standard moorings. “So who is that kid, anyhow?” 

Fourteen summers ago, Edmonton audiences met Lachlan Stewart, at 18 and just out of high school, in an electrifying, explosively physical solo show of his own creation. In Little Room, Lachlan Stewart captured the furious, morbid energy of a teen protagonist channelling his future in advance, regrets included, in a staccato barrage.

What happened after that defied expectation every time out. Bold original experiments: a multi-perspective action flick unspooling in the mind of the protagonist (Big Shot), for example. An expressionist tale of a failing ‘50s marriage in the style of vintage black-and-white television (Dog). An off-centre folk tale that followed stringless marionettes searching through a town for their creator (Grumplestock’s). We wore colour-coded earphones for The Genius Code, with its simultaneous versions of a multi-perspective love story gone wrong.The Survival of Pigeons As Studied By Human Lovers was a cross between a Discovery Channel nature doc and a bittersweet ‘relationship comedy.’ The list goes on. Surreal SoReal’s idea of decking the halls at Christmas-time was a collection of short plays by Samuel Beckett.

There may well be a Surreal SoReal play in the arc by which Lachlan Stewart, now based in Montreal and working largely in French, returns to his home town, and the Fringe where it all began. And he’s bringing Shakespeare with him.

Macbeth Muet is a two-actor version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of ambition created by Lachlan Stewart and Marie-Hélène Bélanger for La Fille du laitier. That’s the Montreal “theatre delivery” company Lachlan Stewart and two of his francophone NTS classmates founded to take theatre to the people — in a truck. 

As Lachlan Stewart points out, with Macbeth Muet (i.e. mute) there’s no question of translation, either between our two official tongues or Shakespeare’s Elizabethan lingo and our own. Its two actors, Jérémie Francoeur and Clara Prévost, preside over a table of homely objects — eggs, cutlery, tablecloth, cups, oven mitts — and a cast that includes marionettes.

Macbeth Muet, Surreal SoReal Theatre. Photo supplied.

The seed of Macbeth Muet, says Lachlan Stewart, was planted in the NTS audition assignment to “perform your favourite play in three minutes.” When it came time to pick a project, I added an actor. And we worked on it as a silent film, with those kinds of gestures, grand guignol, fake blood…. We played around with sound design and music.” Their inspirations included “puppetry, object theatre (where  found objects take on a life of their own as characters), dance.”

And something happened. “It became less of a joke and more the best way of doing Macbeth,” says Lachlan Stewart of his favourite Shakespeare play “and one of my favourite plays, period.”

It is, after all, “a visceral, physical sort of play, very action-based, with all sorts of content that’s weird and ‘doesn’t belong’.” Characters arrive onstage, report terrible battles, leave.  Or start revolutions. Some parts “last a page.”

Approaching Macbeth with straight-ahead humourless seriousness “is a really narrow-minded way of looking at it,” Lachlan Stewart argues. Which certainly explains why the great theatre archive is full of productions of Macbeth that just seem to peter out instead of escalate.

“The archetype of a power couple working through problems together can be very naturally funny,” he says. “Breaking Bad is a kind of shadow of the story of Macbeth. House of Cards is Richard III and Macbeth. So intense, but we laugh; we’re thrilled….”

“There’s absurdity, in theatrical terms. Seriousness and the absurd go hand in hand in Macbeth. A strange and godless situation.. It started out with us having fun. And then it became a very (viable) production of Macbeth.”

“At the beginning of the play people are talking about a battle and a hero. And I’ve never seen a production of Macbeth that stages that battle. It’s always bugged me. Or the battle near the end when Macbeth feels himself to be invincible. We stage both of those battles!” 

Meanwhile, Lachlan Stewart’s life, “changed forever” by a son now 2 1/2, includes continuing dates for Fille du laitier’s repertory lineup, including Checkout 606 (two grocery cashiers in mid-existential crisis as the veggies come to life around them) and Tong: a tip of the tongue opera (a kids’ show based on a ‘20s Dada-ist poem and named for the start-up sound of a computer). Macbeth Muet, which has already been to New York, will pick up its oven mitts for an upcoming tour that will take it to Europe, to Austin, to the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary….

Laughter and horror are not mutually exclusive, argues the multi-talented actor/playwright/director (he directed the original Tiny Bear Jaws production of Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable). “It’s rooted in our culture…. It’s a good time in our culture for irony and for humour,” says Lachlan Stewart. “A lot of people can appreciate pop culture ironically.…”

“Humour doesn’t diminish what’s profound, what moves people.”

Macbeth Muet runs on the Fringe’s Stage 9 (Telus Phone Museum) starting Aug. 17. 


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