To bleed or not to bleed?

It's a question often faced by directors of violent productions like "Macbeth': Just how much blood should be spilled before an audience?

April 30, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

That damned spot. It's there in "Macbeth" whether it's there or not, hence the questions for any director who takes on the play: How much blood is too much or not enough?

It's one thing to say that this William Shakespeare tragedy is thematically steeped in blood -- that the stuff metaphorically drips from the walls, bubbles from the witches' caldron, and darkens the skies over Dunsinane and the souls of its treacherous protagonists. It's another to actually deal with the red goo onstage.

At Center Stage, where "Macbeth" has been running since March 24, they go through about a cup of fake blood per show -- about two gallons already, with another week of shows to go. Director Tim Vasen says it could have been worse.

"There are a lot of places in this play where you could use blood and we didn't," says Vasen. Because blood, as Virgil Sollozzo says in "The Godfather," is a big expense. So many complications: Will the blood ooze, pool, spurt? Will the actors risk slipping on it? How to keep the costumes clean? How will it affect the audience? All this weighs against what is gained by showing blood.

What is gained in "Macbeth," says Vasen, is a visceral response to the physical evidence of moral horror. A murderer but also a tortured soul, Macbeth invites audience identification if only for empathy with what literary critic Harold Bloom calls Macbeth's tendency to envision a deed as done even as the plan is barely hatched: "We are to journey inward to Macbeth's heart of darkness," Bloom writes, "and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit."

Even more dreadful

How much more dreadful, then, to see Macbeth's blood-soaked hands after he murders Duncan, the king of Scotland, thus beginning his fall into the moral abyss. Macbeth has a powerful imagination and is susceptible to morbid visions, but, as Vasen says, "the audience seeing the dripping blood turns it from this theoretical thing to something real, something they can't undo."

In this production, when Macbeth enters holding the daggers he has used to kill Duncan offstage, blood literally drips from his hands onto the stage floor. He smears blood on his face, a move not included in Shakespeare's minimalist stage direction. Vasen says it was suggested by Ritchie Coster, who plays Macbeth.

"Ritchie really wanted to have a lot of blood on his hands and smear his face with it," says Vasen, "to really force Macbeth to confront the physicality of what he had done."

Lady Macbeth, dismissive of her husband's comment that his hands are "a sorry sight," takes the daggers from his hands to return them to the crime scene. She is then stained, too.

"A little water clears us of this deed: How easy it is then!" says Lady Macbeth, protesting too much. The line resonates ironically later as a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth incessantly rubs her hands as if washing them while speaking her own witch's incantation: "Out, damned spot! out, I say!"

After the Duncan murder -- other than a brief apparition of Lady Macbeth displaying a bloody right palm -- not another spot is seen in this production until the gruesome climax. This despite several murders, a suicide and the appearance of a ghost described in the dialogue as having "gory locks."

For sundry reasons, Vasen says, it made sense to withhold further stage blood.

One murder occurs outside Macbeth's castle at night, meaning a little blood on a costume would not show up in the low light. Blood running in puddles might show up, but that presents the hazard of actors slipping in it, not to mention the problem of quickly cleaning the stage before the next scene.

In Act IV, Scene II, an entire family is murdered onstage -- a boy, mother and infant, in that order -- all without gore. At first, Vasen tried having the boy show the blood from his wound after he's stabbed. They found that the moment took too much time and detracted from the scene climax, the infant's slaying.

$70 a gallon

Because Vasen and fight coordinator J. Allen Suddeth were tinkering with blood through rehearsals, it wasn't clear until near opening night how the blood was going to be used. Thus, properties master Gayle Mahn says she did not have time to make her own blood mixture, as she usually does. She instead ordered some from a supplier in New York, a concoction of glucose, food coloring and biodegradable soap that goes for $70 a gallon.

In the final scene, where a bloody murder occurs on stage, the actors gather around their victim, working their swords with one hand while using their free hands to spread the goo from little bottles hidden in their costumes. As they draw away from their victim, he is awash in gore.

The in-house blood recipe may vary, depending on whether it has to gush, puddle, squirt or merely stain, says Mahn. The color may have to be adjusted depending on the lighting in which it will appear.

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