A Voice from Isolation
By Gabrielle and Matthew Randle-Bent
Banquo is alone. Isn’t he? Alone. As he paces his purgatorial home, stuck inside dead time, he replays the events of his demise over, and over. There was a war won, then weird sisters on a heath, a night when a king was killed, and finally, again, night strangled day, the crows made wing to the rooky wood, and the rain came down. And he did nothing.
In his deadly isolation, Banquo has little left but his imagination. Imagine, a single declaration in which he conjures us and implores us to consider what could have been. Imagine: it could have been me, but it was you. You fought the traitor, you took the glory. But it didn’t have to be that way. Banquo isn’t quite alone, he has us. We are his possibility for redemption, a surrogate, a sympathetic ear, we are his audience. He is a storyteller, after all, and storytellers are never really alone.
In I, Banquo, a piece first performed in 2005, playwright Tim Crouch has written a contemporary Shakespeare adaptation that is uncannily prescient to our current time. We cannot yet return to our theaters, places we rely upon to remain connected to society, gatherings of strangers with whom we observe the stage and thus observe ourselves. In these times of social isolation, what do we need to reconnect?
Perhaps it is a return to this essential craft of storytelling that undergirds so much dramatic theater and social life. Having an actor look directly at us and implore us to “imagine.” He is in isolation, so he imagines, and we imagine, too. And, just like that, we are together — or at the very least we are no longer alone, if only for a while.
What Banquo asks us to imagine is a society hollowed out, teetering on the brink of collapse. A brutal tyrant rules. Macbeth and his ever-diminishing cadre of lieutenants have become detached from any sense of the natural bonds that hold us together. Scotland has become afraid to know itself. Yet the essential ties that bind society in mutual necessity have been laid bare to Banquo.
This death of nature manifests in the absence of sleep. Macbeth, for his horrid deeds, shall sleep no more. Lady Macbeth’s guilt pushes her to haunted nights of sleepwalking. After Duncan’s murder, sleep eludes even Banquo. He feels complicit in Macbeth actions: he should have known, he should have acted. It is Banquo’s knowledge that his inaction put his son Fleance in harm’s way that haunts him now. His drive to tell this story feels connected to his lack of sleep: perhaps by confessing, by getting things straight in his mind, he might finally rest.
Banquo asks us to imagine that we stand at the center of the madness, to imagine that we are responsible for the chaos, that we are tyrant Macbeth hurtling toward his dreadful fate. Then, with empathy and the circumspection of a life already lived, he asks us to imagine that it could have been him. With just a moment’s weakness, an imagination dimmed. It is true that we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please; we do so under already existing circumstances. This is Banquo’s struggle. He needs us, tonight, the night of his death. And here’s the thing: we need him too.
Now more than any time in our collective recent memory, we need our storytellers. We need their stories, their imaginings, their hopes and visions of worlds other than our own. We need Banquo, yes, but we need Dan Waller, the actor who gives voice to Banquo, and the dozens of other people who worked to bring I, Shakespeare to the stage far more. Characters are important, as are the stories they tell, but theater is nothing without the people who make it. We are invited to sit in spaces of imagination by the artists and technicians whose labor and ingenuity are laying the foundations upon which the future of theater will be built—during and after the pandemic. Their work is our reward and it is not without risk.
The power of storytelling is not only in the ability to transport us, but in the ability to transform us. What happens when we are asked to imagine that we aren’t the hero, but the villain? What happens when, even then, we are offered grace and empathy? Just imagine, anyway. Imagine, with us and with Banquo, what you would have done if faced with the three weird sisters on the heath. Who would you, or any of us, have become? After we follow Banquo through his haunted mind, and we have dared to imagine the unimaginable… How will we act? What will we do differently?
Storytelling comes at a cost to the tellers, especially now. The stakes are higher now, as we light up our dimmed stages, as we occupy buildings that have been in their own purgatory, as we travel through our cities unsure of whether or not we are essential. What makes all of that worth it? It could have been him. It could be any of us. Just imagine.