This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Theater groups around the world are honoring the Bard’s work with traditional and updated stagings of his plays.
That includes a new performance of "Macbeth" at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston. There, students are re-imagining the centuries-old tragedy, setting the work in the one of today’s most pressing humanitarian disasters — Syria.
"Macbeth" is a story of ambition, of a main character who uses violence to assume the throne, and then resorts to more bloodshed to keep it.
He’s a fictional character who could be easily mistaken for any of the modern world’s best known dictators. Men like Hitler, Stalin — and, more recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I think that the thing that they most likely have in common is that they will do whatever they want, by the end of it, to keep the power they have been given, or that they have cheated to get,” says Sanborn’s Michael Giordano, 18, who is playing the lead role in his school's production.
Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" is set in Scotland during the middle ages. On this stage, though, there’s camouflage, soldiers with guns, and the bombed out streets of Aleppo, represented through boarded-up store fronts with Arabic-style writing overhead.
Evan Czyzowski is an English teacher at Sanborn and also the theater director. He says "Macbeth" can serve as a window into the conflict in Syria, but doesn’t explain it.
“It’s not a moral play that tells you, do this, and all your problems will be solved,” he says. “It starts a conversation, and it is says, what is the world, what is the violence in the world, and how do we deal with it?”
Getting a good conversation going around Shakespeare is no easy feat with most teenagers. The language can be imposing, and the ghosts and sudden descents into madness a bit hard to follow.
But by reframing this play into modern times, into an actual place students can find videos of on YouTube, the play becomes something more than just curriculum.
“There is more to life than just reading a text in the classroom and then walking away. It gets them to think about the text beyond the four walls of the classroom, and that’s the ultimate,” says Czyzowski.
And it seems to be working. Koran Sherman is the play’s assistant director, a 17-year old tasked with costumes and stage direction.
“Evan told us when we first started the show, I want you to go and research what is going on,” she says. “So I think that really brought everyone closer to their characters, and also know more about what’s going on. Cause I had no clue, I mean, obviously I had some clue about what’s going on in Syria, but after this show I really paid more attention.”
In pointing out the parallels between then and now, between fiction and today’s facts, this production might make young actors, like the lead Michael Giordano, more willing to have their voices heard.
“This is not just something that happened during Shakespeare's time,” he says. “This is something that should we not speak up, and prevent it, and confront it head on, it could continue to happen. So that's some really important things that we are doing.”
And perhaps that’s what Shakespeare had in mind for "Macbeth" all along.