For Shakespeare’s shortest play, Macbeth certainly stands strong as a household name. Everyone is familiar with the infamous curse that is wrought when a thespian calls his title in the venue, a suspicion that has haunted the theatre long before Brecht, Stanislavski, Gretowski and Artaud took to the stage. Failures, malfunctons, and even deaths to be reported when this blaspheme is blurted. So did this production conquer the curse and survive?
Thought to be based on Holinshed’s Chronicles, a large tome of British history, Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes the loose details of real-life Scottish King Macbeth mac Findlaech, ironically born with the first name meaning “son of life” whilst turning to murder in the desire for unlimited glory. Following his climb to power and what it means to be powerless both with and within it, Macbeth explores the danger and darkness of self-serving ambition while fantastically detailing the corrupt politics of historical Scotland and the usurping of the monarchy in momentous revolution. With themes of death, betrayal, loyalty, power and fear, the piece delves into a realm that is both a history and a hyperextension of our own: a dramatic reflection of the skewed politics of our current world, even more pronounced with recent Australian leaders backstabbing in their pursuit for power without astutely realising the vast difference between power and its greater conduit, influence. With these thematic concerns calling out to the contemporaries more clearly than ever, Australian Shakespeare Company’s interpretation unfortunately does not let the comparison develop, and, alack, misses the mark on making a performance with the intended imprint.
Directed by the company’s Artistic Director Glenn Elston, Macbeth tends to fall short in its moments. With awkward transitions having spontaneous entrances of the entire cast typically in single file, sudden cues in lighting and sound that seemingly distract more than provide, continual pacing about the stage detracting from the landing of the lines, the direction seems unable to settle, causing the intention and emotional contour behind the text to often skip beats and miss marks. Having Macbeth stride up onto the table as the witches fade away behind it, Banquo popping out almost comically from around the corner in a Fonzie entrance to address Macbeth, a fourth witch suddenly appear alongside the famous trio, a costume change of two of the sisters into goddess-like beings but not the third… There are many moments where the integrity of the piece is dwarfed by obtuse character choices and the energy becoming lacklustre, converting the overall flow of it into more of a lull as the text becomes a recitation rather than a conversation. It should be noted that the women come across much stronger than the men in their momentary scenes, having much more colour and playfulness in handling their poise and delivering their lines, proving the more captivating segments in the show. The screams that come from them are nothing but blood-curdling, and are worthy of their own award; this can also be said by the awesome sword battle between Macbeth and Macduff at the finale of the show, choreographed by Sue-Ellen Shook.
Situated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, the large blocky set stands solemnly and bleak on the patch of evergreen terrain. A black and grey dais with ramps stretched out on either side to attend and access the platform looks an ominous mountain, with tower jutting skyward upon our right and a table with accompanying stools vacant to our left. It is unfortunate that the large expanse isn’t adequately utilised for the pieces available. The aforementioned tower has a cameo performance in the second act for a fifteen-second interval, rotating and showcasing its many entrances and intricacies in a flash-forward sequence. With such a technology accessible, it comes across as spontaneous, and while serving the moment, seems to undermine itself with the question of why it had not been used at any other point prior to. Something that follows the same path is that of the large well that looms in the far corner opposite the tower, complete with bar and bucket. While obviously helping construct the feel of a village clearing, its purpose seems to almost never reveal itself until the witches’ return in the second act, only to disassemble itself – removing both the frame and the pail – and become what seems a large wooden washtub in replacement of a cauldron. While again serving the moment, it could have been less cluttering and challenging to have used the table as the cauldron, supported by the fact that the audience were situated too low-seated to see the solid tabletop; this may have also sorted the problem of requiring a fourth witch to lug the well onto the table. Finally, there stood lonely and chunky a balcony rail cutout directly centre across the back. Two metres wide on a much larger stage, it came to confuse the location with its adjacency to the well and the dining table, not being enough of a sub-location to become the balcony and looking awkward in its detachment from the rest of the set; had it been connected to the tower, it would have been a complete non-issue.
With Macbeth being based in mid-11th century Scotland, Costume Designer Karla Erenbots takes elements of Medieval European attire to construct the vision and construe the visage of her characters. Although not a far fetch for an audience to believe with popularised media like Game of Thrones still relevant, Erenbots’s design seems to loosely adopt the already inaccurate Braveheart scheme and dawdle a few centuries too backward, with torn cloths of brown and black making a patchwork up one limb in asymmetry and small pads on joints that seem weak of armouring the body from potential attacks and could-be-fatal wounds. With our royal battalion coming across more as barbarians in their aesthetic and minor contemporary elements dotted here and there – tight-fitting shirts and a pair of torn black jeans strapped with your everyday belt – the designs became an odd pairing of the dystopian aesthetic of 1979’s Mad Max and the 2007 film Beowulf, with Macbeth himself mirroring oh too closely the title role of the film in everything from costume to poise to speech patterns. If the intention of the design was to create a post-apocalyptic quality, it was a brave but convoluting choice; however, if not, and if 11th century Scotland was the intended setting and thus desired effect, we unfortunately receive the amalgamation of Gothic fishmonger turned head chief viking; it would be worth Erenbots really separating the centuries of attire and maintaining the royal garments that would have been donned even during battle for that time. It is worth addressing that the extreme lack of kilts on the stage, a symbol of Scottish pride and culture, was a smart choice; it had not even been invented yet, so kudos to Erenbots for critical historical accuracy.
Noteworthy is the use of theatre technologies. Stage Manager Brittany Coombs paired with the duo that is Production Electrician Thomas Roach and Engineer Trevor Huggard manage to slip in a few moments of stage fog. While an overused mechanic that is seldom done well, this team manages to make the witches all the more eerie in their misty presence without the usual accident of obscuring their faces or producing so much that the audience fills up with it. Coombs also hits all the marks precisely, and although the lighting and sound bites were sometimes more janky and inappropriate than anything, each cue was struck at the bell and not a moment too late. The lighting design would always be a challenge in itself when in a open space; with the first act doused primarily in daylight and there being no lighting rig nor back wall or curtain to capture the light, designs would be difficult to establish. While there were sometimes very confusing colour clashes on stage with pinks and blues, some incredible states were achieved, one in particular being the rotating kaleidoscope of green against the trees behind the set during the brewing of the magic cauldron.
As addressed, the soundcape was an interesting choice. Musical Director Paul Norton and Sound Designer Andrew Nielson ought to be commended for their tackling the soundboard and creating some really astonishing moments: the sound of the encroaching battle behind Macbeth during his final soliloquy, the Celtic sirening when the deities are called upon, the steady drum pulsing through the chanting of the magic crones. However, there were some transitions that seemed to be only to be, particularly with the stacking of the swords as everyone piled off stage while traditional Scottish fiddling ensued. Seeming a random moment of lightness, we did not know whether this was an introductory sequence for Duncan or if festivities were actually starting up in the next room… or maybe if we just needed a reason to get the actors off the stage. The moment was unexpected and forced; but, in all, was a mere blip compared to the rest of the underscoring.
Macbeth is an intense show, with very dark themes and moments of high stress and high stakes that result in both mental and political breakdown. In the title role of Macbeth is Nathaniel Dean, who plays the role very sternly and strongly; his stance is wide and his poise is grounded, defining Macbeth’s soldierly presence. Kevin Hopkins dons the face of Macduff, stiff in his posture as if in constant alert and suspicion of his fellows; although nuancing his vocal lines perfectly and subtly dabbing his implicit thoughts with authentic execution, the wooden lack of movement in his upper body seemed to lock him into an awkward presence onstage, almost conflicting his vocal prowess. Anna Burgess in the role of Malcom is a brilliant choice, using ye old Shakespearean trope of casting by talent and not by gender; with an open and powerful stance, her physicality and gestures never presented disingenuous in their royalty; while missing the vocal nuances that could have made her performance outstanding, she still proved a formidable force onstage. Dion Mills in the role of Duncan is the embodiment of gratitude and compassion, the perfectly boisterous lord who stumbles into a trap disguised as hospitable arms; natural with his movements and motions and a swagger to his voice, Mills makes Duncan a larger role than written. Kieran Clacy-Lowe’s Banquo is a lanky and lofty character with an air of dismissal; Clacy-Lowe’s interpretation is unrefined, with his words often choking in his throat due to his lax accent and mouth movements, and often comes across stale and two-dimensional due to a lack of intonation and emotional contour; if he were to focus on how he communicates rather than what, he could very well be an undeniable talent. Tony Rive and Adam T. Perkins as Lennox and Ross respectively maintain the movements of the show, gluing together the separate interactions with a commanding insight. Filling the stage was an ensemble of swings and interns including Elizabeth Brennan, Laurence Young, Blake Aaron, Tessa Luminati and Claire Duncan.
However, the strongest are yet to come. With such a renowned role full to the brim with delicious monologues and interesting psychology, Lady Macbeth is one of the most recognised Shakespearean roles of all time. There is a lot to live up to in this role… and it is lived beautifully. Alison Whyte not only plays but becomes the part of Lady Macbeth, mastering the use of kinesics, chronemics and intonation to land each and every line like a fresh thought; with a character that requires an implicit power and incredible influence over others, especially Macbeth, Whyte’s portrayal brings out the true cunning of our Lady whilst making her still yet a respectable woman despite her evil intentions. Witches Annabelle Tudor, Madeleine Mason and Syd Brisbane are all triple-cast: whilst demanding the stage in their twisted mannerisms and mysticisms as the witches, these three shine in their other roles. Brisbane doubles as both Messenger and the hilarious Porter, having a spot of commedia dell’arte while engaging the audience in knock-knock jokes. Tudor and Mason take the cake with an incredible scene as the wife and daughter of Macduff: both brilliant in their acting, their deaths have a heavy impact due to the realness of their characters and both the joy and pain that is read on their faces. A note for all the cast, however, is the delivery of lines and reaction times: not only did it seems like the cast were not speaking to but rather at each other, their lack of intonation and cadence in their voice left more to be desired. Although it has been very well researched and noted that businessmen use a limited range in their everyday speech, the monotony came as more of a deadness than a dynamic, overall losing comprehension of the piece in the lack of emotional connectivity and expression. Instead of engaging discussions, we were left with half the cast sounding like a line of auditionees practising to become the next Batman.
So yes: maybe our famous “Scottish King Macbee” has clutched his cold, dead fingers on yet another production; however, that does not mean this show won’t fight back with as much gall and glamour as the very King himself. Despite critiques, the reputable Australian Shakespeare Company works the material well and still puts on a good show. A night so charming and a script so palatable, you can’t help but feel satisfied when you finally push yourself up off the grass and get yourself home for a good night’s rest.