The Devil Speaks True is an immersive, multi-sensory production that places each audience member into the “mind and body of Banquo” as we see the Macbeth narrative from the perspective of this character coming home from war.
When asked what drew him to the character of Banquo, director Joel Scott said “we can relate to [him] more closely than Macbeth” and that his story is “more interesting and human”. The more you speak to Scott, the more you realise the dramatic potential of the “overlooked” Banquo, especially when his experiences are seen within the context of those returning from modern conflicts.
Scott took inspiration from reading the account of one ex-serviceman, finding the description of brotherhood and battlefield camaraderie an important factor. “He was saying how good it felt to be on the battleground… where the person by your side would lay down their life to save you, and you’d lay down your life to save them. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it was just a given, and when you come back, and you haven’t got these sorts of brothers, you feel this weird loss.” Scott believes this can be seen in the relationship between Macbeth and Banquo: “There’s the beauty of the selflessness in the conflict zone, and he’s come back and that’s gone.”
The production team discussed the experiences of Banquo with former servicemen and a former hostage – the character’s insomnia, his hallucinations, his difficulty speaking to his son – and saw how these symptoms related to his interviewees. This led to Scott connecting Banquo’s character with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how Shakespeare’s text chimed with their words.
Banquo “talks about feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that’s exactly what TS [a former RAF serviceman] said.” Or, when considering the difficult relationship between Banquo and his son, Scott connected again with TS’s feelings upon returning from Afghanistan. “He didn’t care about anybody in his family. He felt like a block of ice that was gradually melting… and in this block of ice there’s a tea light, and he tries to find the tea light in himself, this little moment. The moment might be playing with his sons, or going for a walk and seeing the stars, but he has to have this moment to hang on to, because without that he’s just a shell of a man… and for me that applies exactly to Banquo,” The returning soldier, without a wife, abandoned by his best friend, unable to confide in his child, must find his “tea light moment”.
The production focuses on such personal experiences – because, as Scott explains, the condition is “unique to every individual.” (Indeed, some of the men interviewed by the director don’t identify as having the condition, despite suffering some elements of the disease.) We’re not trying to recreate PTSD, as that would be doing a disservice to the condition, but we’re giving an insight into the suffering of Banquo’s character.”
Using snippets from his interviews, as well as Shakespeare’s text, the show incorporates intense smell, projections on a screen, disorienting pitch-darkness and binaural sound played through wireless headphones. Though there is a single performer – a dancer – on stage, one can hardly remain an objective spectator as they watch him. When he taps his ear, “you hear a tap in your ear, you experience as he experiences.” The binaural sound allows you to “locate sound above you, over your right shoulder,” and in this play, at several points, “you can hear sound inside your own body.”
The experience is very much focused on the individual, and Scott believes “each person’s response will be different.” The important thing, however, is that they do respond – this production wants to raise awareness and questions about PTSD. TS stated the the most important thing was that people needed to talk about the condition and, as the production tours around the country, we can very much hope to see it provoke discussion in each of its temporary spaces.
The Devil Speaks True is playing at the VAULT festival until 27 February, then touring across the UK until 19 March.
Image Credit: Leo Woolcock