Insomnia, sleepwalking, hallucinations, paranoia: These are not just supernatural elements from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” but are also symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Eric Ting, director of the Long Wharf Theatre’s adaptation of the classic play. “Macbeth 1969” awakens its title character’s “black and deep desires” not through the meddling of witches but with the horrors of the war in Vietnam.
Ting, the associate director of the Long Wharf Theatre, began adapting “Macbeth 1969” in late 2010. The show, which opened Jan. 18, includes an estimated 70 percent of Shakespeare’s text, but Ting rearranged and reallocated the lines to emphasize different aspects of the story: While Shakespeare’s original play has 30 characters and takes place in a variety of locations across Scotland, “Macbeth 1969” has only seven characters played by six actors and is set entirely in a small-town hospital in Middle America.
Two moments of inspiration guided this substantial re-setting, Ting said. Before the genesis of “Macbeth 1969,” Ting and his colleagues at the Long Wharf Theatre had been talking about doing a production of “Macbeth” and were already considering experimenting with a small cast, he said.
Then, while brainstorming the production, Ting said he read an article in Smithsonian magazine by Caroline Alexander called “The Shock of War” that discussed how WWI veterans were treated for PTSD, then called “shell shock.” Soon after, President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal window for U.S. troops in Iraq. Ting said he immediately saw how timely the theme of reintegrating soldiers into civilian society was. In Shakespeare’s original text, Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches on their return from war, Ting noted, the encounter from which all the play’s events cascade.
After reading Alexander’s article, Ting said he began to research the history of PTSD diagnosis.
“During the Vietnam War, it [PTSD] was known as ‘battle fatigue,’” Ting said. “During World War I, ‘shell shock.’ In the Civil War they just thought it was cowardice.”
Realizing he had found a distinctive and culturally relevant approach to “Macbeth,” Ting chose to set the play in 1969 because he thought the current mood of the country regarding the War in Iraq mirrored public reaction to the Vietnam War. Ting pointed out that current treatment of veterans with PTSD can still be short-sighted and unfair. For instance, even though experts say it requires a minimum of two to three years to recover from PTSD, many veterans diagnosed with it are returned to combat in far less time than that, Ting said.
“Men returning from Vietnam found they’d been fighting a war no one wanted to be a part of,” Ting said. “They were given no psychological help and were basically told to forget what had happened overseas — the only time attention was paid was when one ‘cracked’ and committed acts of violence. They were condemned at home for the very actions their government had ordered them to do abroad.”
McKinley Belcher III, who plays Macbeth — referred to in the script as “Soldier ” — said the production has intensified elements already present in Shakespeare’s plays. The original script deals with issues of war and its effects on society, which this production emphasizes by reassigning lines to Macbeth and Banqo and by developing their relationship as fellow soldiers dealing with their combat experience.
Banquo enters swathed completely in bandages and confined to a wheelchair, while Macbeth begins the play already up-and-about. Barret O’Brien DRA ’09, who plays the characters of Banquo and Macduff — “Soldier ” and “Civilian,” respectively — said the idea of playing Banquo as a severe burn victim originated in early workshops before rehearsals began. He said he appreciated having time to develop the role because it restricted his ability as an actor to express emotion through conventional means.
“I was a lot more afraid of it at the beginning, because an actor’s main tools are the body and the face, and in this role, both of those are curtailed,” O’Brien said. “[It turned out to be] a beautiful gift. I was forced to trust the text, and now what I feel is Banquo’s frustration with his situation, not an actor’s frustration.”
Ting said that in both workshops and rehearsals, he sought out feedback from actual veterans. The production team met with PTSD specialist David Read Johnson ’73 GRD ’80 and the veterans he works with through the drama therapy group Homefront Theatre, which Ting said influenced the show’s direction.
“There may only six actors speaking in this show, but in truth there are many, many voices present in the theatre,” O’Brien said.
Hearing personal stories from actual veterans helped “put a human face” on the issues Macbeth deals with, Belcher said.
“I’m excited to do a version of Macbeth that brings everything about the play really close to home,” he said. “[‘Macbeth 1969’] uses Shakespeare’s text to look at the challenges that face our world, right now.”
“Macbeth 1969” runs through Feb. 12.