Vincent Van Gogh once claimed that the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals used 27 shades of black. I think that Scott Pask, the set designer forMacbeth, may have Hals beat. I'm exaggerating, of course: until I see all the elements of the set in place on the Beaumont stage I won't be able to make an exact reckoning. But there's no question that a panoply of dark hues will be part of this Shakespearean evening.
"We were inspired by the text," Pask told me the other day. He was referring to the many lines in the tragedy that mention darkness. To take but one example: in Act 2, Scene 4, Rosse says, "By th' clock 'tis day, And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp." Pask continued: "Jack [O'Brien] and I talked about the play's nightmarish quality: that was another starting point."
"Another huge part of my inspiration,"added Pask -- who won his first Tony award for The Pillowman and his next for his work on The Coast of Utopia at LCT -- "was the size of the Beaumont stage itself. The advantage of how it's configured is that you can achieve these vast panoramas using the upstage but achieve intimacy when you focus on the downstage thrust."
Just what covers the downstage area may be what most intrigues theatergoers of a mystical or historical bent. "We've created a disc on which talismanic symbols are engraved. In this choice, we were inspired by Dr. Dee. Not literally by his words so much as by his writings."
Don't worry if Dr. Dee sounds like some rapper you are ashamed you haven't heard of. Pask is referring to John Dee, born in 1527 and died in 1608 or 1609, who is Wikipedia'd as a "a Welsh mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, imperialist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I." Pask enumerates: "In a creative meeting, as we were planning the 'Macbeth' production, [the costume designer] Cathy Zuber and I were talking to Jack about Dr. Dee. The more we spoke about him, the more his life and learning inspired us as we came up with our designs."
But don't worry: in order to appreciate the Macbeth set, you don't have to be as learned as Dr. Dee or as immersed in arcana as he was or believe, as he did, that God's creation is an act of numbering.
"Our audiences," added Pask, who was raised in Yuma, Arizona, "don't need to know anything beforehand. They are much more likely to be struck by the fact that the design is largely abstract or that the set is largely dark with flourishes of red." He added: "And as the evening goes along, they may notice that the walls upstage start to look as if they've been scarred by a broadsword."
As much as anything, said Pask, whose next projects include a Chicago Lyric Opera production of The Barber of Seville and Harvey Fierstein's new play,Casa Valentina, next spring on Broadway, "we wanted to create a sense of monumentality. The Beaumont is so well-suited for that. As I learned first-hand from The Coast of Utopia, you can literally come on from sixty feet upstage. I love seeing someone make an entrance all the way from Tenth Avenue."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com