Theatricality is a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s work. Take the numerous plays-within-plays found in his oeuvre and the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It. As Isaac Butler notes in this review of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth is a particularly theatrical work. Many adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, in any medium, tend to eschew this theatricality. Coen solved this by basing the aesthetics of his film on German expressionism, for Butler the “most theatrical movement in cinema history.” The Crimson Cage, a comic adaptation, addresses this issue by setting Macbeth in the world of 1980s pro wrestling. As the character of the devil, a stand-in for Hecate from Macbeth, makes clear in The Crimson Cage, “wrestling is theater. Wrestling is art. Wrestling is the one true sport.”
Though this is a bold claim, it does have some merit. In addition to dedicating their very bodies to selling a good fight, wrestlers maintain their characters off the stage because of kayfabe. Though of ultimately unknown origin, the term is pig Latin for “be fake,” and its use arose in the same time period in which The Crimson Cage is set. Wrestling is unique as a form of theater in that it requires the actors to almost constantly keep acting often exaggerated versions of themselves. Additionally, the actual lives of wrestlers are woven into the narratives of their characters, as exemplified by this touching rundown of The Golden Lovers, further blending the distinction between reality and theater. Thus, the decision to explore the classic tale of the hunger for power through wrestling was a brilliant move on the part of John Lees, Alex and Ashley Cormack, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
The Crimson Cage is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Macbeth. The principal characters are all present. The three witches are the Bayou Sisters. Macbeth is Chuck Frenzy, a big fish in the pond of Louisiana pro wrestling who wants nothing but to break out and become world champion. Lady Macbeth is Sharlene, his wife, kayfabe manager, and valet who, like Lady Macbeth, is even more ambitious than her husband, as she hopes to achieve her own wrestling dreams in their sexist industry. Banquo is Terry, a Black wrestler who has worked with Chuck for most of his life. His son has recently become a wrestler too. Duncan is Van Emerald, king of pro wrestling, who is more vicious and crafty than his counterpart in the play. Macduff is Crowe, an indigenous wrestler who dresses up as a cowboy.
This faithfulness to the source material is present with the plot too. Each major story beat from Macbeth can be found in the pages of The Crimson King. The characters have been slightly tweaked. Unlike in Macbeth where the other principal characters are generally noble, all the characters in The Crimson Cage have more depth. Van Emerald, for instance, betrays Chuck Frenzy whilst Chuck is contemplating betraying him. As nothing changes drastically as a result, readers who have not revisited Macbeth in some time might not even notice. But this choice does help contextualize the bellicose logic of the more noble characters in Macbeth, accordingly adding more depth to the narrative of the play too. A major change that might irk especially devout Shakespeare fans is that this is an adaptation that doesn’t use his words. To be clear, the aurality of Macbeth is translated to the comic form with the careful attention Otsmane-Elhaou pays to rendering pitch, tone, and timbre in his speech bubbles. The singular bloodiness of Macbeth is also evoked by Otsmane-Elhaou in the gruesome and visceral SFX that punctuates the violence of The Crimson Cage. However, with rare exception, Shakespeare’s words, themselves, are missing, as they are missing in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood. Like with Kurosawa’s film, this means that this adaptation mostly aesthetically stands on its own merit, resulting in a fascinating take on one of Western literature’s most well-known, and well-trod, classics.
The pencils, inks, and colors of The Crimson Cage strike one as haunting from the opening pages that feature the Bayou Sisters in an eldritch swamp. This visual haunting is palpable throughout the rest of the comic. Readers will pick up on a fondness for using muted neon lighting to evoke the supernatural. Particular attention is paid to the details of the wrestlers’ presentation. Pro wrestling fans will likely walk away with an appreciation for the dedication to 80s pro wrestling verisimilitude in The Crimson Cage’s pages. Furthermore, the way the actual wrestling is rendered is lush with care to how wrestlers truly break their bodies to sell the performance. Particular praise must be lavished on the way Otsmane-Elhaou really captures the ferocity of the crowd and their chants in his letters.
A wrestling crowd is unique compared to other theatrical crowds because a number of its members, particularly the young, do not believe they are witness to theater. One page of the comic shows Chuck humoring an adult fan who points out to him that one of his rivals is in the same bar. Chuck and this rival fight, to the satisfaction of the fans, and Chuck later reveals he enjoys these moments. This sentiment is one of few pleasant and touching moments in The Crimson Cage. Though wrestlers aren’t generally praised for their acting, the ability to have their audience believe that a performance is real is praiseworthy and gets to the heart of wrestling as theater. What’s fascinating about The Crimson Cage is the manner in which it translates this theatricality to sequentiality.
On a superficial level, the comic goes to great pains to show the improvisational theater aspect of wrestling. When in the ring, Otsmane-Elhaou renders the speech of the wrestlers in tiny font, within smaller speech bubbles, to show that they are whispering the match planning as they go on. The team weaves what wrestling fans usually compile into YouTube videos into the pacing of the narrative, so that the time spent reading a panel depicting action between wrestlers is also spent figuring out the physicality of the match with the wrestlers. Here, we also see another intriguing layer of the comic. Who is the real self of the wrestler, for whom reality and theater are almost one, for whom the audience is, in a sense, ever present? Arguably, or so the comic would suggest, a wrestler’s real self is on display to other wrestlers as they discuss how to put on a good show within the ring. The comic team utilizes this space to not only have the wrestlers discuss their moves but also have dialogues, expressing things to each other—that are too long to say during an actual match—that they do not disclose elsewhere.
Showing intimacy by breaking an element of wrestling to translate it to the language of comics occurs elsewhere in the book. The comic makes use of wide panels that center a single character, evoking how spotlights are shined on theater actors. A staple of wrestling is the interview done before or after matches. This is when a wrestler is at their most performative, as the interviews often feature short, prepared sketches. In bringing this more formal element of the theater of wrestling to comics, the team has picked a formal aspect of Western comics: the grid. Specifically, when a character is doing these types of interviews, they are featured on a six-panel grid. The grid is in a fixed camera sequence which replicates the (usually) single camera that gives wrestling fans a profile of the wrestler as they speak. It is within this grid that the monologue and the soliloquy, which occur in both Macbeth and pro wrestling generally, are replicated. Here, our characters start off as if they are speaking to a camera and being broadcast to wrestling fans but quickly delve into the depths of their hearts, commenting on their trials, tribulations, hopes, fears, and fate.
There’s a fascinating game of diegesis at play in these scenes as some of the panels within the grids are surely occurring within the actual narrative, particularly the ones that feature numerous people. However, the grid is not wholly diegetic because it will be interwoven with the rest of the narrative, with characters revealing things to the camera that they wouldn’t even openly speak to themselves in another setting. It is only near the end of The Crimson Cage, when it is revealed that the actual audience in these sessions might be the literal devil, that these confessions make sense and are properly contextualized. The devil makes clear that Chuck Frenzy’s career is a small piece in a game larger than human ken. The comic brilliantly associates the devil and the diegetic audience. Take the eerie neon or pale lighting that shines on them both throughout the comic. The respective ghosts that haunt Macbeth often haunt Chuck Frenzy from the crowd. Much the same way that the devil is privy to the future, a wrestling audience, more or less, knows who is going to win as it is obvious which wrestler is playing a face (hero and winner) and which is playing a heel (villain and loser). The audience still gets excited for the pin count, even though they know how it will go, much the same way that Hecate and the devil, respectively, offer Macbeth and Chuck Frenzy choices, knowing what they will do regardless.
The Crimson Cage makes a fascinating sequential spectacle of each pin count. Whenever one wrestler pins another, the comic team isolates the hands of the referee in three panels (four if there’s a pause). This leitmotif cuts through many of The Crimson Cage’s scenes, functioning as a brutal, sequential reminder of inevitability—in short, a crucial aspect of Macbeth. The Crimson Cage often isolates hands in their own panels. The character of the devil is primarily depicted as crimson hands. In a sense, in its sequentialization of Macbeth, The Crimson Cage has spread the key image of bloody, unwashable hands throughout its pages. That the hands are tied with a basic unit of sequentiality, the panel, means that The Crimson Cage associates Macbeth’s themes of fate and inevitability with the key image from the play. For this reason, and other brilliant choices by the comic team, The Crimson Cage shines as one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare I have encountered in any medium.