Belgian troupe’s ‘Macbeth’ mash-up fuses words, rock music

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Belgium’s Theater Zuidpool with its version of “Macbeth” will play Thalia Hall on Aug. 21-22. | PHOTO BY Tom Cornille

One of the great aspects of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, the massive yearlong celebration of all things Shakespeare, is its dedication to importing Bard-related performances by companies from around the world. In addition to the many performances and events produced locally, the program spearheaded by Chicago Shakespeare Theater also features work by companies from Russia, Belarus, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Poland, Mexico, India and China.

Theater Zuidpool’s ‘Macbeth’ When: 8:30 p.m. Aug. 21-22 Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Tickets: $28-$48 Info:

One company making its U.S. debut is Belgium’s Theater Zuidpool with its version of “Macbeth,” a mash-up of Shakespeare’s words and rock music that will be presented in English for two performances at Thalia Hall in the Pilsen neighborhood. A sort of deconstruction of this great drama, it features an original score by two of Belgium’s greatest alternative musicians — Mauro Pawlowski (of dEUS) and Tijs Delbeke (of Sir Yes Sir).

“It is like no ‘Macbeth’ you’ll ever see,” says Criss Henderson, executive director of Chicago Shakespeare. “It’s part theater, part rock concert, part opera. It’s a wonderful and inventive telling of Shakespeare’s story.”

Zuidpool, based in Antwerp, is known for its surprising and uncompromising works that range from Shakespeare and Goethe to Beckett and Fosse. The inspiration for their version of “Macbeth” came from the realization that the company was missing something with the Dutch translations of Shakespeare that they were accustomed to using.

“These are good translations but they are the only reference we have,” co-artistic director Koen van Kaam says. “When we compared them to the original English we were really struck by how much stronger, fiercer and more violent the original text is.”

Along with fellow artistic directors Jorgen Cassier and Sofie Decleir, van Kaam began to think about adapting “Macbeth” but not in the ordinary way. The tragedy is one of Shakespeare’s shortest works and it’s compact nature allowed the creative team to approach it from a musical sense rather than the usual classical theater sensibility.

“We wanted to evoke the nightmarish aspect of the piece with sound rather than with actors in the classical sense,” he says. “We asked Mauro to think about the musical universe of this world and his music captures its nightmarish, insane atmosphere and also has a very erotic sexy vibe.”

Sections of the classic drama were jettisoned in order to concentrate on the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, van Kaam says, “So we could really focus in a musical sense on the rise and downfall of those two.” Then the company, which never has a complete concept at the start, began to improvise. “It’s really trial and error,” he says with a laugh. “And then this electric folk-trash, spoken word, sung version of ‘Macbeth’ began to emerge.”

On stage, the setting resembles your typical concert set-up with three musician-actors (van Kaam, Decleir and Cassier) at microphones with additional musicians (Arne Leurentop, Femke Heijens, Sjoerd Bruil) backing them up.

The music accompanying Shakespeare’s words here is an eclectic mix of styles — folk influences, electro pop, rock and trash metal. “Sometimes it makes me think of the atmosphere of the murder ballads of Nick Cave,” van Kaam notes. “True to the material, it’s dark, erotic and violent.”

As the plans for Shakespeare 400 got underway, Henderson traveled to Ostend, Belgium, to check out “Macbeth,” which was being performed at a summer festival there. He says he was immediately intrigued by the company’s commitment to a very straightforward, simple story telling.

“It was more like a rock concert setting and yet they were able to transport me into the play,” Henderson recalls. “I loved that it was genre skipping. It isn’t simply one thing and as part of Shakespeare 400 we’re really trying to show how Shakespeare crosses all artistic disciplines.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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