A Brief History of Unconventional Takes on ‘Macbeth’

The Robot Shakespeare Company is apparently a thing that exists, and last week they released The Tragedy of Macbeth, a CGI-animated, fun-for-the-kids version of the classic Shakespeare play, complete with plain-English subtitles. As bizarre as the project, which is available in full on the RSC website, sounds, it’s not the first unconventional twist on the dark story of ambition, murder, and court intrigue. Perhaps that’s because the original play was itself an adaptation: the Bard found his inspiration in the story of Scotland’s King Macbeth, documented in the 1587 historical volume Holinshed’s Chronicles. Or maybe it’s because, like most of Shakespeare’s material, the themes of Macbeth are universal; just as it’s easy to compare Romeo and Juliet to any story of star-crossed lovers, all a Macbeth adaptation needs is a goal, a slightly disturbed protagonist, and a seriously twisted power couple. We compiled the best of Macbeth‘s unorthodox reinterpretations, from the story of a Pennsylvania burger flipper to the choose-your-own-adventure style take of an experimental theater company.

Voodoo Macbeth

Voodoo Macbeth (1936)

Voodoo Macbeth is actually the nickname of this landmark production, staged by Orson Welles at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater in the middle of the Great Depression. Performed by the “Classic Branch” of the Works Project Administration-funded (and cringe-inducingly named) “Negro Theater Unit,” Welles’s Macbeth left the text of the play unchanged, but used costume and an all-African American cast to suggest 19th century Haiti as the setting. The famed trio of witches were depicted as practitioners of voodoo, led by a male, bullwhip-wielding version of Hecate, Queen of the Witches. Just 20 years old at the time, Welles used the highly acclaimed production to launch his career; Voodoo Macbeth ran on Broadway before embarking on a national tour. Selected scenes from the production can be viewed online in the concluding minutes of the 1937 documentary We Work Again: How the New Deal Benefits African Americans.