The room is dark. The evening air is still. The audience member in the chair is deceptively quiet. Inside the audience member’s headphones, however, chaos ensues. A storm rages, the air crackling with electricity, thunder pounding against each ear drum.
“Macbeth: An Immersive Audio Experience, Designed For the Dark” works with sound to construct a sensory viewing of the play. Created by Knock at the Gate in collaboration with Theater Emory, the experience offers “a new high fidelity immersive audio experience.” A pair of headphones and a dark environment are all audience members require for the experience. The show ran Nov. 4-7 and 11-14.
Set in 11th century Scotland, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” explores the story of Macbeth, a soldier who hears a prophecy promising him the title of King of Scotland. Gripped by dangerous ambition, he is led to commit a series of murders, including that of King Duncan, leading to chaos and upheaval in the country.
The play opens mid-storm, with the sounds of thrashing wind blowing into our ears. There is a crash, and then the Weird Sisters take the stage. Later, the second scene with the Weird Sisters is just as terrifying. The cauldron, crackling sounds, boiling water— all accompanied by a child crying in the background, make for an ominous environment. Here, the quick transitions between each sister are punctuated by sharp scraping sounds. Chanting together rhythmically, each voice feels distinct yet unanimous. The refrain “By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes,” is a shiver-inducing piece of foreshadowing. These scenes were perhaps the most chilling in the play as a result of the Weird Sisters’ icy, disconcerting hisses.
In an interview posted by Theater Emory, Edith Kwon (22C), who voiced the Weird Sisters, described the work as challenging “to push all of our acting into our voices rather than trying to convey anything through our bodies.”
These voices prove to be the most crucial element in keeping the audience engaged.
For example, in the scene leading up to Fleance’s murder, dialogue builds the tension. In this case, the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son Fleance is tender, which makes the killing feel more heartbreaking than I remember it being while first reading the play.
The play does not diverge much from the original script, despite its radically different delivery. Unlike traditional productions, however, the murders are heard onstage. “Macbeth” is minimalistic in its approach, relying on dialogue and background sounds when appropriate. Most of the play speeds by in hushed tones, feverish monologues and quick staccato.
Sound is the most exciting element of the play, often shifting between left, right and center for a three-dimensional experience. Audio transitions include footsteps, birdsong and sounds of nature. At times used to indicate the characters’ positions, the audio experience builds momentum and indicates climaxes. When two characters are conversing, each of their voices is heard from the opposite ear. When Lady Macbeth confronts Macbeth after the infamous dagger scene, she whispers into the right ear while he replies into the left, resulting in a particularly intense exchange.
Often, we feel part spectator, part every character at once. When footsteps approach Duncan’s door, I’m at once Duncan, his killer and the wall separating murderer and victim— that cannot scream a warning, cannot retreat, but instead can only stay fixed and helpless. Duncan’s breathing is juxtaposed with the pattering footsteps, the turning knob, the final spluttering and the shriek, all while the ominous instrumental churns in the background.
In this play, we are witnesses to a conversation, often positioned right in the middle of it. Characters float by like ghosts and flickering shadows, a stream of disembodied voices. Although the reverb effect creates the impression of a stage or a large space, particularly powerful in the dagger scene, I found that using it in every scene diluted some of “Macbeth’s” realism.
The play was concise, keeping the audience engaged for 90 minutes while still touching upon each major scene. Brief instrumental audios sometimes preceded monologues or functioned as scene transitions. However, I wish there was more music in the play, to provide relief from the dialogue on which it so heavily relies. The famous Porter scene, a crucial provider of comic relief, could be more playful. I found myself expecting more of an escape from the tense buildup, but “Macbeth” seemed to sink too comfortably into the somber atmosphere.
Theater Emory and Knock at the Gate’s “Macbeth: An Immersive Audio Experience, Designed For the Dark,” finds a new way to tell a very old story. While the unconventional format allows sound to be employed creatively, it does not experiment with or stray too far from the play’s structure. The lack of visual cues leads listeners to create distinctly personal images to fill in the darkness, making for an intimate experience.