Putting the Mud in “Macbeth”
New Yorker, 4 June 2014
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of “Macbeth,” premièring in the U.S. on June 5th at the Park Avenue Armory after a sold-out run in Manchester, begins with an epic, visceral battle scene that takes place on a dirt stage: rain pours forth from the heavens, thunder rocks the air, swords clash and sparks fly, actors bellow, mud spatters.
“I was given a note by the director yesterday,” Jim Leaver said, on the morning before previews began last week. Leaver is the production manager, and he was kneeling in the cavernous fifty-five-thousand-square-foot Drill Hall where the play is staged, running a handful of dirt through his fingers as the tech team tested out the speaker system. He cleared his throat and raised his voice to be heard over the sound of brandished swords, cracks of lightning, and “Star Wars”-esque bloops echoing around him. “He said it wasn’t ‘puddly’ enough.’ ”
He was referring to Ashford, who has received eight Tony Award nominations, one Tony, and one Olivier, and was standing in the Armory’s entryway, clad in jeans and a checked shirt and holding his notebook. He opened it to show the negative note—“No puddles!”—scrawled on one page, then made an attempt at clarification: “To play the post-battlefield scene, it’s more profound to have puddles, to have murdered bodies lying there in the puddles.”
The Goldilocksian task of making the mud just puddly enough falls to Leaver, a white-haired, jovial man whose British accent lends his filthy talk an air of sophistication. He has been immersed in “Macbeth” mud for more than a year. During tech rehearsals in London last summer, he began experimenting. “We took chopped wood and soil and had at it with watering cans,” he recalled. “It looked like it was puddling nicely and wasn’t too slippy, which is what we’re trying to achieve here. Nice puddling, minor slippiness.” Alas, as tech week progressed, the soil started to coagulate. “It wouldn’t drain, so we had the actors in mud up to their knees. We did some soul-searching,” he said.
He and his team landed on an “optimal mud recipe”: three parts finely ground bark to one part builder’s sand, which keeps the mixture from binding together and aids in water drainage. Christopher Oram, the set and costume designer, called it “a brilliant solution. You get the quality and sensuality, but it’s also playable. And it smells peaty. That’s key.”
In Manchester, less for authenticity’s sake than for logistics, the components came from Scotland. Manhattan’s version of the Scottish play will be performed on North Carolinian soil. On Memorial Day weekend, a truckload of fifty-two cubic yards of mulched pine bark and seven cubic yards of sand travelled north. About half of it was dumped onto the Armory floor. “We loaded it in the American way, with big, burly guys,” Oram joked. “The British way was effete, with wheelbarrows.”
Every day, a team of three crewmembers is in charge of mud maintenance. It is raked and turned over entirely on alternate days.
In Manchester, the play was performed in a deconsecrated church that held about two hundred and eighty people. Though the production setup is mostly the same in New York—a center “trough” of stage running between two sets of stadium seating—the Armory production is on a larger scale. Faced with excess space, the directors decided to tack on a vast indoor heath, which the audience members, four times as many as in England, must walk through to get to their seats. The Armory, with interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, was built by the National Guard’s Seventh Regiment of the Civil War—known as the Silk Stocking Regiment due to its upper-crust New York membership. The building served more as a social hall than a military one. Over the years, its Drill Hall has held such events as the lying-in-state of Louis Armstrong and a production of the New York Philharmonic that involved three orchestras surrounding an audience. The space is tailored to each performance, mostly from the ground up.
In the case of “Macbeth,” this involved two key considerations: how to prepare the space for a nightly rainstorm—the set-production team built a ramped floor on top of the existing one, outfitted it with a waterproof pond liner, and topped it with an outdoor-flooring product, a layer of black carpet to insure that only water filters through, and then, finally, the earth—and how to make it rain.
Two cubic yards of heated water—“like a bath, so the actors don’t get ill,” Leaver explained—are sanitized with pool chemicals, then pumped up four stories, into the forty-foot pipe that hangs from the ceiling, where it is released from nine jets. “You have to finesse it a bit,” Leaver said. “It’s twice as high as it was before, so the first time we tried it, the first two rows got absolutely soaked.”
After filtering through the mud, the rain runoff drains into a tank underneath the seating structure, then is pumped through a tube to the dressing room and flushed into the sewer system. “We’ve put a bit of ladies’ hosiery over the end of the tube to catch any mud clumps,” Leaver said. Lest the New York sanitation system be alarmed, he deemed the water “cleaner than what comes out of your toilet, you know, with the papery bits and all that.”
A seven-hundred-and-twenty-square-foot dumpster is standing by on Sixty-sixth street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, for dirt fill-in as the production winds on and the mud is depleted. Actors trek it out through the dressing room—the wardrobe department stays late every night to launder the dirty costumes, giving new meaning to Lady Macbeth’s utterance as she descends into madness—and some inevitably is washed out in the water. And there’s yet another cause of mud reduction. “When you have thirty guys charging through the battle in this earth, the audience needs to be expecting to interface with the, shall we say, earthly qualities of the show,” Leaver said diplomatically.
In other words, if you’re sitting in the first few rows, expect to get dirty.