By Ash Cottrell

Few things in life get me going like Shakespeare and the romance of a balmy Melbourne summer night. The quiet, elongated slumber of the local theatre scene has finally come to an end and I’m pleased to report from the frontline, that it’s back with a vengeance.

Thursday nights for me are often a preservation-night-in. Quiet anticipation spent on the couch, waiting for the weekend ahead. Last Thursday however, I ventured out, the magical allure of Shakespeare under the stars, did the trick. I traipsed south, feeling like Macbeth on the Scottish moors- down Linlithgow avenue towards Southern Cross Lawn, a secret pocket of the gardens, right near the majestic Shrine. Heels and (a low-cut, mind you) summer dress were in stark contrast to the Lycra and ‘workout makeup’ of the upwardly mobile fitness fanatics doing laps, on the southside. Hip mums with prams, hot dad bods, people training for the marathon, or that upcoming charity run. Suddenly, all I could think about was a new pair of lululemon tights and how my active wear didn’t quite cut it. Luckily, self-deprecation was replaced with the pleasant droplets of an evening shower and the muffled chatter of the box office.

I had arrived.

Shakespeare can be overwhelming for contemporary audiences due to the inaccessibility of the language, but it is my opinion that all you need is a short synopsis in your head and you’re good to go. This allows you the space to just watch and enjoy, letting the beautiful, lyrical language of a genius, wash over you. Purists will hate this but, what I knew, and in my opinion, all you really need to know, is that Macbeth has been out fighting for Scotland. Coming from the battle fields, he encounters three witches, who share with him prophetic visions of his future. They predict (among other things) that he will be the King of Scotland. This arouses Macbeth’s ambition and he writes to Lady Macbeth, who has her own desires for revenge, being the granddaughter of a slain king of Scotland, at the hands of King Duncan’s father. Shortly after the encounter with the witches, King Duncan decides to hang his hat at Macbeth’s castle for a night or two and here’s where it gets truly deviant. Macbeth, egged on by Lady Macbeth’s emasculating accusations of cowardice, decides to kill the King. Admittedly, I’m a bit light on the story points after that juncture but importantly, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth spend the rest of the play wracked with guilt and both wind up dead, Macbeth at the hands of Macduff and Lady Macbeth, presumably at the hands of herself.

From a visual perspective, this production had it in the bag. They cheated a little bit with the glorious deep background that is the Botanic gardens, but the set and surrounds worked seamlessly together and were a sight to behold. The set design was versatile, and multi-layered, the lighting and music, powerful and complimentary. Karla Erenbots, the talented costume designer nailed it across the board, encapsulating a look that felt authentic, whilst adhering to a strong and effective colour palette.  Think Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves-esque. (The Kevin Costner one from the nineties, in case you were wondering).

The performances, led by Macbeth, Hugh Sexton and Lady Macbeth, Alison Whyte were impressive and succeeded in capturing a level of chemistry that was powerful and frightening all at the same time. According to the program, this production of Macbeth also has Nathaniel Dean in the title role. With this said, I was pretty enthralled by Hugh Sexton’s interpretation. The ancillary characters, by and large, supported them well and I particularly enjoyed Kevin Hopkins as Porter who, breaking the fourth wall, drew us all in with his toilet humour and twenty-first century asides. In short, the Australian Shakespeare Company is a class act and a company with which I suspect as an audience member, you are always in good hands.

For me, the only criticisms I have concern blocking and the choice not to reveal visually, the kill of the King. While the audience was treated to some superb fight choreography (Charlie Mycroft), a decision was made to kill King Duncan offstage and subsequently Macbeth at the top of the castle, largely obscuring the acts from the audience. I don’t know, maybe there’s something macabre and gratuitous lurking in my subconscious, but I felt a little robbed. Violence and the threat of violence is a significant part of the narrative and I think it would have been more effective had the audience borne witness to the crimes that push the Macbeths into the depths of their collective despair.

I am in awe of the storytelling prowess of Shakespeare. His themes were bold and thrilling and whenever I see a Shakespearean performance, I am compelled to engage with other notable iterations. Back in 2014, I was lucky enough to see Hugo Weaving as Macbeth at the Sydney Theatre Company. Following this most recent local production, which I strongly recommend, I decided it was high time to watch Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth, to see what nuance Fassbender brings to the troubled character. Such post-show enthusiasm and research is a wonderful by-product of theatre companies revisiting classic texts.

Just like Lady Macbeth, who tries so desperately to rid herself of the ‘blood’ on her hands, Macbeth has taken a hold of me. In case anybody is wondering, I can be found wandering the corridors of my apartment building during yet another COVID lockdown, uttering madly, “Out damned spot!”