Method in his madness

19:40, Feb 17 2014
Jackson Coe
SHIFTING SHAKESPEARE: Jackson Coe in Henry V, one of his last Shakespearian roles before Macbeth, now on at Wellington Botanic Garden.

Wellington's Jackson Coe is the standout performer in Macbeth. The actor tells Taryn Utiger why studying at New York's famous Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute was the turning point for his career.

Jackson Coe stood in the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests watching the carnivalesque scene build in tension. The police erected fences and barriers around Zuccotti Park, while a crowd of crammed protesters tried to pour onto the street.

A couple stood in front of him wearing monocles and drinking from champagne flutes, handing out fake money to anyone who walked by. Coe, who was in New York to study acting, absorbed the charged energy, the sound of the hand drums and the smell of the homemade soup being offered around. He knew it wasn't his place to become involved in the political unrest of a country he was a guest in, but he needed to see this beast in person, to observe it for the meat it could provide for his future acting roles.

One of them has been the title role in Macbeth, which opened in Wellington on Friday.

The Dominion Post theatre reviewer Laurie Atkinson was impressed, laying much of the credit for the Summer Shakespeare production at the feet of Coe. ''[He] gives Macbeth a certain dignity and intelligence.''

Coe's Macbeth has been layered with tidbits from street urchins, glimpses of bikers and memories from his stroll into the heart of Occupy Wall Street.

Macbeth is a tale of betrayal and power that often leaves one wondering if the title character is a villain or a victim. Coe's portrayal of the Scottish King is a 
contemporary one. Filth, gangs, drugs and alcohol are some of the few new-age elements. The Bard's shortest tragedy has Macbeth, at first a general, told by witches that he will one day become king. Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches who say one day he will become King of Scotland. nteHungry for power and provoked by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself.

Coe, who grew up in New Plymouth, is no stranger to Shakespeare.More than a decade ago he proved all the world was indeed a stage, when he was selected to perform at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Then aged 15, he was the youngest of 20 high school actors who stood out at the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival.
''Shakespeare was something I fell into through school and Sheilah Winn, an organisation [which does] monumental work in educating young people on how to use his language.'' Now 26, Coe credits his experience at The Globe as one of the defining moments of his life.

''The sense of the theatre, the sense of his words and the way we used the space all stuck with me. It was such a big part of what drove me,'' he says. When Coe returned from Britain, one of his first roles was as Macbeth. To do it again nine years later has been a chance to measure how his technique as a performer has changed. When he studied theatre at Victory University he was on the fringe of the scene, he says.

The young radical in him had no time for naturalism, method acting, or the famous teachings of Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Instead Coe preferred the French Theatre of Cruelty, first exposed in the 1930s, and German Expressionism. Stylised and surrealist theatre excited him. ''I just found realism to be so boring.''

After leaving university, in 2009 Coe was cast in Summer Shakespeare's Henry V. A few months later he was in Henry VI Part 1, but until Macbeth opened last week Coe hadn't performed in any other Shakespeare plays in the past five years. Instead he landed parts at Bats and Circa theatres in Wellington, Cue Theatre in Auckland, as well as studying acting in New York.

In a complete turnabout on his younger views on realism and method acting, Coe was accepted into New York's legendary method acting mecca - the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

Before his death in 1982, Strasberg trained some of the industry's biggest names, including Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Al Pacino. For Coe the choice to immerse himself in naturalism was eventually an easy one.

''I hit a point where I realised there was more out there to explore. Being able to combine my radical theatre side with realism, two rather opposing forces, has been the best thing I could have done. ''It's helped me to make proper choices in whatever creative environment I am in.''

The tutors at the school taught Coe how to open his eyes to everything around him.''It taught me how to open my eyes and draw influences from everything and everywhere. 
''To be a good creator I have to be open to the things I am seeing around me. Each person's experiences are just as valuable and valid and just as meaningful as mine.''

Shakespeare, Coe says, possessed an unsurpassed talent for capturing humankind and timeless tales. ''The staying power of Macbeth is undeniable. It's a play that is steadily performed and steadily popular.

''I've been fascinated with it since I first performed it. Above all, I think Macbeth is a cautionary tale about what happens when you follow your black and deep desires.'' 


Macbeth, Wellington Botanic Garden, until March 1.



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