NxNE: Marcus Roche of Open Book

15 Jul 2011 in Aberdeen City & Shire, Argyll & the Islands, Dance & Drama, Highland, Outer Hebrides, Showcase

MARCUS ROCHE is the director of Open Book’s new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

NORTHINGS: Marcus, before we talk about Macbeth itself, how did you get connected with John Cairns and Open Book?

MARCUS ROCHE: John and I met in Ullapool. I was up there performing while I was still a student at the RSAMD, in a version of Hamlet. John was managing the Highland part of the tour, and we got to chatting about possible collaborations.

Out of those chats we did Romeo & Juliet, which we took on a schools tour in the Highlands, which finished up brilliantly playing for eight people in the middle of a snowstorm in Bettyhill!

We had Liam Keenan, who is a wonderful actor, as Romeo, and he has influenced my approach to Shakespeare. We also had Hannah Donaldson, and although I didn’t know it at the time I was casting her, she had also played Juliet in the Dundee Rep production.

John and I then worked on the original idea for this play, and we made a successful application for North by North East funding, and here we are.

Marcus Roche makes a point to James Mackenzie (left), Cameron Mowat and Ewan Donald (photo Patricia Niemann)

Marcus Roche makes a point to James Mackenzie (left), Cameron Mowat and Ewan Donald (photo Patricia Niemann)

NORTHINGS: Lots of Shakespeare connections there – is he a particular interest of yours?

MARCUS ROCHE: To be honest, it has kind of happened that way rather than it being a real choice of mine to direct Shakespeare, although I do feel the Shakespeare plays have a unique quality of being popular theatre, with popular themes of love and murder and revenge and so on, and at the same time they are literary masterpieces, so they can appeal to a very wide audience base.

NORTHINGS: You have developed an unusual concept for this version of Macbeth. Can you talk us through the idea?

MARCUS ROCHE: The main thing we decided to do was to set the action around the banquet table, essentially in traverse with people on either side, but also with people sitting up at the table.

NORTHINGS: By people do you mean the audience?

MARCUS ROCHE: Yes, that’s right, so the actors will be there on stage and so will some of the audience. One of the things I found when working on Macbeth was that it requires the audience and the cast to make a lot of leaps – the action moves around all over the place, and it happens quickly too. So the scene changes come thick and fast, and we felt that setting the whole thing around the banquet table placed it at the heart of the action.

Marcus Roche, Cameron Mowat, Ewan Donald and Michelle Gallagher

Marcus Roche, Cameron Mowat, Ewan Donald and Michelle Gallagher (photo Patricia Niemann)

NORTHINGS: Why did you want the actors in such close contact with the audience?

MARCUS ROCHE: One of the most exciting things for me about Shakespeare is when actors get to confide in the audience, to address them directly, and the audience get to be part of the performance in that process. It’s like you and I sitting here chatting away – you get that connection. By doing it this way, I feel it brings everyone closer to the action, and you should feel part of the story.

NORTHINGS: I feel a shiver of fear going round the country here at the spectre of the dreaded audience participation.

MARCUS ROCHE: Well, I would want to stress very strongly that we are NOT asking the audience to do anything other than sit and enjoy the play! They will not be required or even asked to do anything, so they needn’t be fearful. And we will be giving them their own “banquet” of shortbread and whisky during the interval.

NORTHINGS: I believe you and Liam Keenan have been hard at work cutting the play down to a more concise version?

MARCUS ROCHE: We have, and of course, it is the shortest of all the tragedies anyway. I reckon we have taken around an hour off it, so it should come in under two hours including the interval.

NORTHINGS: Is there not a risk of losing too much that way?

MARCUS ROCHE: We have tried to retain as many of the resonances and threads as possible – one of the things I find with cutting Shakespeare is that there are certain strands and images that you do start to lose entirely, and we have tried to avoid that and retain most of them. Rather than making bitty cuts here and there we have tried to use full scenes wherever we can.

NORTHINGS: And the text is still all Shakespeare’s?

MARCUS ROCHE: It’s all Shakespeare, yes, and I think it is very important to work with the actors on the sense of the language. I think it can take audiences a little time to adjust to the language, but it is wonderfully poetic and rich with meaning, and you keep finding new things in it.

Cameron Mowat and Ewan Donald, with Garry Collins and James Mackenzie sitting it out

Cameron Mowat and Ewan Donald, with Garry Collins and James Mackenzie sitting it out (photo Patricia Niemann)

NORTHINGS: I would also guess that the setting requires a different approach from the actors, as against declaiming to a distant audience from the stage?

MARCUS ROCHE: Definitely. With being so close to the audience it means that everything we do on stage, whether it is acting or props or costumes, has to be very detailed. It still needs to have a sense of theatricality, because it is an inherently dramatic story and the text demands that the performances be a little bit larger than life, so it’s a kind of heightened realism.

NORTHINGS: How do you plan to costume the show?

MARCUS ROCHE: It’s kind of 1930s chic. We have gone for a dress for the show rather than conventional historical period costume.

NORTHINGS: The overall look of the piece, and a lot of the things we will see on stage, have been developed with a Caithness-based artist, Patricia Niemann. How did that work?

MARCUS ROCHE: Myself and John worked together with Patty on ideas. It wasn’t so much a case of asking her to design a stage set, it was more asking ask her to make bits of art that we could take inspiration from, and design the production around.

So she came up, for example, with the dagger chandelier, which really sets off the atmosphere of the production as it hangs over the table, blood red. There is also a salver she has made that serves various purposes, including washing off the blood and also to summon Banquo’s ghost.

NORTHINGS: So it is a continuous collaboration?

MARCUS ROCHE: It was really a sequence of us discussing things that she could maybe make, then her going off and making something, and in turn what she made then influencing the overall production, so it has been a continuous collaboration and development of ideas.

Patty has also been making sketches of the actors during the rehearsal process, and there will be a foyer exhibition of those, along with some examples of her work in glass and jewellery.

Patricia Niemann sketches at rehearsal (photo Kenny Mathieson)

Patricia Niemann sketches at rehearsal (photo Kenny Mathieson)

NORTHINGS: You are making quite a bit of use of social networking sites, both ahead of and during the tour. What is the thinking there?

MARCUS ROCHE: We strongly believe in the value of connecting with the audience in an interactive way through social networking. We hope we can give them an insight into what we do, and we are providing lots of stuff that they can look at and listen to ahead of coming to see the play if they want to get involved in that way.

Macbeth tours from 18 July-6 August 2011.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2011