Designing a Tlingit 'Macbeth'

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

Key characters in Perseverance Theatre's adaptation of "Macbeth" are represented by crests and symbols rooted in Tlingit symbolism. Set artist and Sitka designer Robert H. Davis came up with the symbols, collaborating with director Anita Maynard-Losh and Juneau costume designer Nikki Morris. "We're being careful not to use anything that might be construed as proprietary," Davis said. "Crests are property of certain clans. I don't think anyone can claim that anything we've used is their property. It's all very abstract and generic."

• Macbeth (A crab) - "In Tlingit culture a crab indicates a person being a thief," Davis said. "So the idea of Macbeth stealing the throne rather than inheriting it or having the right to it made it easy to find a representative crest."

• Duncan and his men (A deer) - "Because the deer was a symbolism of peace, it was not a clan crest," Davis said. "It also seemed to be representative of the traits of Duncan, a peacekeeper and a gentle person."

• Macduff (A human being with feathers) - "I wanted to use a killer whale for Macduff's crest," Davis said. "That would have worked perfectly. But the killer whale would have been obviously someone's property, and it became more and more of something that bothered me. I finally used a human being with feathers to have him actually be a human but with characteristics of a bird of prey."

• Banquo (A tree) - "There's a certain line in the poem that talks about his roots and about his lineage," Davis said. "So we gave him the tree crest, which is also not a design that's used among the Tlingit people for any clan crest." Banquo's son, Fleance, has a root design by his collar.

• Kooshdaa kaa, or the witches (A land otter) - "The land otters are the shapeshifters," Morris said. "They're capable of assuming any shape, in particular the shape of a dead relative. As one woman I talked to about it said, they live in a limbo where they haven't passed on to the afterlife. They have their own land. They just want you to be there."

• Ross, Lennox and the other thanes - "They don't have a formal design, but they have elements of Northwest Coast design," Morris said. "I wanted to isolate the crest images to the main people. It's a big theater, and you have to identify everybody."


Several hanging elements, background in the play's scenes, are also steeped in Tlingit symbolism.

• The Duncan Wall (The main wall with two flanking house posts) - "On the house posts, the bottom figure is a man and their tongues are connected," Davis said. "If you look at a medicine rattle, a lot of times you'll see a human with its tongue connected to some animal, usually a frog or a raven or a loon. That signifies passing the medicine back and forth from one spirit creature to a human being. In Tlingit culture, a medicine man would receive a message from his spirit helper. So this suggests that Macbeth was deluding himself that he was receiving information about his destiny from the witches.

The central figure on the main screen wall is also the raven, and he's got human characteristics. There's a human behind the raven beak with feathers coming out of his hands. That says that Macbeth is really the person misleading himself. I used the trickster motif, where Macbeth is his own trickster."

• The image of the box drum - An image of a raven with his tongue in the mouth of a man represents the transfer of knowledge and power. "It's real similar to the motifs on the house posts on the Duncan wall," Davis said. "On the drum which suspends behind the Duncan wall, there's a very light design of a raven wing that crosses the man's face and another very light design of the man's hand crossing the raven's face. That was my own visual pun - the double cross."

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