Artistic Director of Big Telly Theatre Company Zoe Seaton talks about her adaptation of Macbeth showing at this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival

Founded in 1987, Big Telly Theatre, founded by director Zoe Seaton has established itself as one of Northern Ireland’s most respected and long running theatre companies – their work spanning multiple sectors such as tourism and heritage. Adapting Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth for the digital stage, the production follows the director’s succession of well received online productions, her most recent – Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ahead of the productions online showing as part of this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival, Zoe tells us more about her adaptation of the classic.

Hi Zoe, your interpretation of Macbeth will be showing online as part of Belfast International Arts Festival this October. How are you feeling ahead of the showing?

Really excited! I believe now more than ever that this interactive digital format is a totally new artform which can twist and turn and bend and yield to tell any story. Macbeth is a completely different story from any we’ve attempted before in this way. And therefore we’re asking new things of the tech, and of the whole team, that means we’re always finding new things. And that’s genuinely thrilling.

Macbeth will be your 5th directorial project for the digital stage since lockdown, how have you approached adapting the show for our screens?

I’ve tried to streamline and clarify the story, the piece is only 75 minutes long so I needed to be quite ruthless and lose several characters and a lot of text. But that has really helped to distil and focus the story. I’m really interested in the contrast between the domestic and the epic – the journey of the Macbeths from the ‘real world’ to the palace, so I’ve lost very little from the scenes between. This format enables us to invade the privacy of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, to observe them up close and personal and off guard. They go on an incredible journey from the private space to the public sphere, and that in itself feels contemporary and fresh. They are quite separate from the witches, who are a mighty ensemble playing all the other parts and creating all the other worlds. Very early on I became interested in the idea that they might base themselves in a theatre – where better place to conjure up new worlds and mess about with make believe, and while they’re closed… 

How have you found having to adapt your directorial practice during this unpredictable time?

The intensity of zoom means that we do shorter rehearsals spread out over a longer time period, which is also great as it gives you time to think. The process is so demanding for actors – it’s like being in your own live film where you’re the star and all of the crew at the same time and that means that rehearsals have to move at the right pace for each individual – always the case but in this world there are so many more external pressures for them to deal with – internet speed, limitations of space, changing lighting, different computers/operating systems, neighbours, kids asleep in the next room…

Macbeth consists of a 5 strong cast – Nicky Harley,  Lucia McAnespie, Dennis Herdman, Aonghus Og McAnally and  Dharmesh Patel. How’s the rehearsal process?

Working with this cast has been pure joy. I’ve worked a lot with Nicky both in the real world and in digital pieces since lockdown, I’ve worked with Dennis in the real world in our production of Melmoth the Wanderer but this is his first digital piece, I’ve worked with Dharmesh on Alice: A Virtual Theme Park but I’ve never met him properly and this is my first time working with Lucia and Aonghus, although I’ve admired both actors for years. Not only am I blown away by the talent of this cast, but they have been the most generous, supportive, playful and hard-working team you could wish for. The thing is, we love making plays.

Technology plays an important role within the production – with an atmospheric Celtic inspired soundtrack composed by Garth McConaghie and special effects and vision mixing technology creative consultancy from Martin Collett. How have you collaborated with them to bring these aspects to life?

Garth is an amazingly talented composer. I can never predict exactly how he’s going to score any particular scene, but I always know he’ll throw something into the mix which is fresh and exciting. The soundtrack for this show is like a whole other character – it’s full of surprises and heartbreak. Martin Collett is a class act. He got in touch with us after The Machine Stops, our third digital show, said how much he’d loved it and that he had some ideas about how to extend the audience involvement so that they can be seen within the story world. Working with Martin has been brilliant – it’s given us a lot more to play with and means that we can take the whole concept of complicity and agency much further. 

The brilliant thing about audience involvement in shows on zoom is that you have total control – you are free to turn your camera off, or accept an invitation to the palace.

But I have to say that all of this is only possible because we have the best technical team ever. Giles, our production manager and Sinead, our stage manager are so adept and agile and up for trying all these new techniques. I’ve lost track of how many monitors and devices and operating systems each of them are juggling to make magic happen.

You founded Big Telly Theatre in 1987 which has seen you tour theatre work and become an expert in site responsive and participation theatre. Your work has also reached into areas of tourism, heritage, community safety and mental health. How have these experiences shaped your practice?

We’ve been enormously lucky to have worked across so many sectors and in so many different ways and we’ve learnt valuable lessons from every project. But what’s common to all of them is that it’s about telling a story and using what’s available to do that in the best way possible. But most important of all, is the audience. They, for me are the most important character in every room – who is this story for and how can we make the best experience possible for them? 

Moving forward, how do you envision theatre within our digital age?

I think this type of work will sit alongside theatre in the real world. I think we’re at the very start of something transformative, a new form of storytelling which will stretch and change and become a new way to connect. 

What can audiences expect from the production?

Atmosphere, surprise, jump scares, heartache, craic.

Macbeth headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival. Booking link from 14 – 17 October at then transfers online from 21– 31 Oct – to Creation Theatre. Booking link Box office – 01865 766266.

Written by Theatrefullstop