“You can stage Shakespeare anywhere in the world because he describes human and systemic constants that are quintessentially contemporary.” Stage director and Max Reinhardt seminar professor Anna Maria Krassnigg has loads of experience directing Shakespeare’s plays. But even for this experienced director, putting on Macbeth at the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema is an adventure—be it due to linguistic hurdles or the need to rehearse at breakneck speed. Thanks, however, to the enthusiasm and passion of everyone involved, this Vietnamese adventure was a renewed success.
When Anna Maria Krassnigg talks about Macbeth in Hanoi, one quickly realises that this was no typical teaching experience on foreign soil. Back in 2018, Krassnigg had worked with Beverley Blankenship (who was then teaching at the mdw’s Department of Vocal Studies and Music Theatre) to produce Romeo and Juliet together with the Academy’s students. Following its hugely successful performance, the Academy and the two mdw teachers soon declared their desire to renew this cooperation. December 2022 therefore witnessed a production of Macbeth. Prior to the actual performance, their project had already won the Bernd Rode Award of the ASEAN European Academic University Network, which brings together Austrian and Southeast Asian universities. The rehearsal schedule for this Macbeth was demanding, with work on the play itself divided up according to content: Krassnigg’s assistant Marie-Therese Handle prepared the script with the students and Blankenship worked with the students on her areas of focus in phases of two weeks each, after which Krassnigg spent two weeks rehearsing her scenes and putting everything together in a series of final rehearsals. The limited time available for the project required maximum commitment. “We were working there with very strong-willed and tenacious young people. Their unbelievable energy and the joy that they take in acting were clear to see in their strong presence in the here and now—which, in the acting profession, equals talent,” said an enthusiastic Krassnigg of these acting students.
Macbeth was performed in Vietnamese, because “the point was to have the students find a new approach to acting in their own language,” says Krassnigg, who doesn’t herself speak Vietnamese. As a stage director who works internationally, she’s accustomed to working in English. But thanks to a Vietnamese theatrical and operatic stage director who is also employed by the Academy as its central speech instructor, the language barrier was successfully overcome. “She speaks English and she speaks theatre, and the way she translated my teaching into Vietnamese was unfailingly fervent,” recalls Krassnigg with appreciation.
Inviting mdw faculty members like Krassnigg and Blankenship to the Hanoi Academy fulfils the need of the Academy and its students for instruction in the art of contemporary, formally varied theatre. It’s still the case that traditional dramatic forms are very important in Vietnam. “The traditional forms are very artful and rely heavily on motion, musicality, and aesthetics, as one sees in Vietnam’s famed water puppetry. The students, though, are also eager to work in an international market and have a desire to learn other acting tools,” says Krassnigg. The directing professor hastens to emphasise this university partnership’s mutually enriching character: “We mdw faculty members take inspiration from our Vietnamese colleagues, and they’re keen to learn about our acting and directing techniques in the interest of developing new theatrical forms and formats of their own.”
In the students and in the younger generation of teachers in Hanoi, Krassnigg sensed a strong yearning for such change—which quite naturally fuelled discussions. What’s more, existing power structures and hierarchies give rise to a certain degree of cautiousness, here. “In the arts, caution consists in a certain way of dealing with tradition. Discussion of controversial topics is done more politely in Vietnam than it is here,” Krassnigg comments. As a teacher from abroad, one needs a good bit of diplomatic skill in order to consistently advocate one’s own views while simultaneously respecting the processes and rituals of the host university: “One of our missions as faculty members is to take the values of the mdw along with us abroad, as well,” she emphasises. In this respect, the empowerment of the participating women is closest to her heart. “I’d like to show the women that they can dare to manifest their strength—which they do indeed have privately—onstage, as well. Their personal strength shouldn’t be kept out of their work just because hierarchies and money are at issue. The discourse on power structures is now arriving in Vietnam, too, and we can help nourish this process through our work,” declares Krassnigg with conviction.
In her international teaching, this stage director employs proven acting and directing methods with deep roots in the European theatre scene that have been updated over time. “The European tools of the trade are very well suited to stages elsewhere,” explains Krassnigg. “The point is to enable actors to portray what goes on at the societal and individual levels today even if the material comes along in the garb of a classic.” To her mind, it is above all Macbeth that exhibits numerous tie-ins to present-day socio-political realities: “Being a ‘dwarfish thief’ in a ‘giant’s robe’ isn’t a good option for someone who leads a country or an institution, and that makes this play more current than ever.”
So that students could also practice playing to the camera, a decision was made to integrate filmed sequences into the production—something that was very well received by the participants and the audience. This combination with film work is now contributing to discussions about how students of the Max Reinhardt Seminar might someday also be involved in this partnership’s projects so as to make even more efficient use of travel and time. Among Max Reinhardt Seminar students, the interest in international projects is certainly there. “In the future, theatre will be more international. It’s always been this way in music but less so in performative fields, since language represents a barrier. We’re learning, however, that this cannot be allowed to represent an obstacle—and that the point must be to develop new methods and types of projects. It makes a lot of sense to start doing this at universities,” says the professor.
To Anna Maria Krassnigg’s mind, Macbeth in Hanoi demonstrates the many possibilities of international cooperation and makes clear what we have in common: “Art serves as a vehicle. Because regardless of what language one speaks, the language of the performative is itself a language.”