Setting the Scottish Play Outdoors

Hyperion Shakespeare Company stages Macbeth at Hilles

As anyone in the theater world knows, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is cursed. Legend has it that on the opening night back in 1606, the boy playing Lady Macbeth died of fever before the show could open. In 1672 for a production in Amsterdam, the actor playing Macbeth apparently used a dagger that accidentally didn’t retract and killed the actor portraying Duncan during a performance.

The misdeeds continue up through the 20th century, when Sir Laurence Olivier was almost decapitated by a falling 25-pound sandbag, Sir John Gielgud endured the deaths of Duncan as well as two of the weird sisters in 1942 and Charlton Heston watched his tights catch on fire during a 1953 production in Bermuda.

How does a company avoid the evil spirits or their implications? Well, perhaps the Hyperion Shakespeare Company has less to worry about, as their outdoor performances feature no sandbags or elaborate set pieces. Instead, the student-run Shakespeare performing arts group have staid true to their mandate of “bringing Shakespeare to a larger community,” said Hyperion Co-President Julie L. Rattey ’02.

Hyperion will stage the Scottish play in an environment that naturally substitutes for the play’s menacing battlefields and regal halls of stone, the open-air courtyard of Hilles Library in the Radcliffe Quadrangle.

Designed by Wallace K. Harrison and Max Abramovitz in 1966, Hilles is a modern cubist conglomeration sitting on a raised concrete platform where blocks of concrete and glass are assembled around a four-sided open courtyard strewn with hemispherical flowerpots, benches and a reflecting pool, all made out of concrete. Walking across an open terrace, up the steps onto the platform and under a wide, low-ceiling tunnel gives way to the space which is walled in by sheets of glass and ringed by two sets of balconies at the second and fourth floors. It is an austere, angular setting.

It is also a setting that director Daniel A. Cozzens ’03 finds full of theatrical possibilities. Since he was sorted into Pforzheimer House by the freshman housing lottery, Cozzens has wondered about the space. Hilles sits on the southern end of the Quad and thus, confronted Cozzens every day as he made his way back and forth to classes and rehearsals. “I thought about how [Hilles] has this grand, very majestic entryway and how the entryway was used for nothing,” said Cozzens.

He mulled over the prospect of staging a performance around the library, but couldn’t find the right project. Until Macbeth came up.

“What initially made the connection between Macbeth and the space was the classic conflict in the play of the natural and the unnatural,” Cozzens said. “At first it’s on a vast scale but it also has a much more intimate element.”

Accordingly, Cozzens uses the entire space available to indicate that switch. His version begins with action on the steps in front of the library and then withdraws to the area immediately behind, forcing the audience to move with the action, before finally settling into the courtyard for the remainder of the play.

As part of his desire to actively engage and hold his audience’s attention, Cozzens uses the courtyard’s two balconies and even stages action inside the glass stairwells with the sound relayed via speakers to the audience outside.

“The second floor is used primarily for the chamber of the Macbeths,” said Cozzens. He refuses, however, to divulge exactly how the how the fourth floor fits into his production.

Despite Cozzens’ belief in the inherent theatricality of the space, Hilles’ exterior to date has never hosted theater. Suzanne Kemple, Associate Librarian at Hilles, has coordinated the use of the space with Hyperion. Employed at Hilles for the past twenty-two year, she recalled, “I have been here since 1980, but nothing [theatrical] has ever been done in the courtyard before.”

While Kemple welcomes the production, she has attempted to accommodate Macbeth while not interfering with the study habits of those students who frequent Hilles. The library is, after all, primarily a house of learning and books.

Despite the volume of literature housed at the library, however, Kemple doesn’t know of any sliding bookcases or secret passageways that might lend themselves to skullduggery or haunting spirits. Hyperion and company would prefer not to worry about supernatural disturbances, as they already have enough earthly details to deal with that are beyond their control.

“The noise has actually proved to be louder than we had planned,” said Cozzens. “There are a surprising number of sirens up and down Garden Street late at night.”