Daily Review @ Crikey
July 26, 2014
DAILY REVIEW RATING:
As you enter to find your seat onstage at the beginning of Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth, and stare out into the vast emptiness, the ghosts of the empty 900-seat auditorium before you stare right back. Director Kip Williams and STC artistic director Andrew Upton, who together came up with the concept of staging a production in this way, were right: it’s a truly haunting image. Especially when you consider that, for many in the audience, those ghosts are, in fact, themselves. We are the past audiences of that theatre.
Drawing in Hugo Weaving in the title role, as well as a cast of veterans and relative newcomers, STC’s production sold out months in advance, due to its almighty promise. Thankfully, it delivers.
Williams (who last year directed a well-received Romeo and Juliet) proves that, above all else, he’s a consummate showman. Not for any flashy directorial statements, but for the way he shapes the entire piece, building and conjuring theatrical magic out of thin air as it goes on.
The performance begins with the eight actors standing and sitting around two trestle tables, giving an energetic, fast-paced reading of the script with minimal props, no soundtrack and stark, white lighting. They’re in basic, modern clothing, on a bare, black platform which juts out over the first few rows of the auditorium (design by Alice Babidge). No actor leaves the stage and enters the auditorium until much later on.
As soon as Macbeth (Hugo Weaving) reaches the “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” soliloquy, it becomes immediately clear that something more is coming. Lady Macbeth (Melita Jurisic) holds the shining dagger high at the back of the stage, while Weaving, standing mere metres from the audience, stares at his vision and delivers an intimate, haunting performance. This is the moment which Macbeth’s mental state starts to crack and he enters the nightmarish world of the play. As the night goes on, Williams pulls trick after trick from his theatrical arsenal, with stunning lighting (Nick Schlieper), terrifying sound (Max Lyandvert), mugs of fake blood, a glitter storm and plenty of white food, which gets smeared every which way. But there are no illusions here; everything is exposed.
At the same time, he’s serving Shakespeare’s (slightly condensed) text with intelligence and clarity. You’d probably get a little lost if you weren’t relatively familiar with Macbeth, as Williams makes no effort to “explain” things in the paternalistic directorial fashion that’s become all too familiar in Australian Shakespeare productions. His focus is instead on the emotional truth of the characters’ experiences.
This is a production that’s at once spectacular, gripping and almost brutally understated. Thank goodness Williams has forgone an intermission. It would be a crime to break this tension.
Weaving delivers everything that could possibly be expected of him in a muscular physical and vocal performance that simmers away before finally boiling over. He is the audience’s avenue into a play which is all about murder, witchcraft and ruthless ambition. The audience shares in every one of his moral dilemmas. He is a destroyed man by the end, and despite his monstrous acts, we’re all, somehow, on his side.
Jurisic is an absolutely deranged and disturbed Lady Macbeth, right from the get-go. And things only deteriorate, so that by the time she reaches “Out, damned spot!” her world has completely fallen apart around her. In her final scene, her speech becomes practically incomprehensible, but when a performance is as alive as Jurisic’s is, even Shakespeare’s words seem unimportant in that moment.
It’s a rare thing to see actors go to places as dark as Weaving and Jurisic do and be sucked right in there with them. They both spend a substantial amount of time shrieking and wailing, but do so with engrossing conviction and connectedness. They’re constantly delivering their characters’ truths.
The entire cast is in fine form, but two of the best supporting performances come from Paula Arundell and Kate Box as Banquo and Macduff, respectively. This is the best kind of cross-gender casting — where the actors embody their characters, bringing the weight of their own beings to the table (the casting also subtly speaks to the themes of masculinity and manhood embedded in the work). Neither is donning a “man’s voice” or “male mannerisms”, instead they’re focussed on playing their characters’ individual arcs and making each scene work as a piece of theatre. By the same token, John Gaden is brilliant playing against type in his second role as the young son of Macduff, and Robert Menzies makes a great witch.
There’s nothing more thrilling than seeing a group of excellent actors giving their absolute all — these actors really do give their absolute all — in a production worthy of their efforts.
Director Peter Brooks begins his seminal book on theatre The Empty Space with: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”. Williams proves that this idea isn’t only applicable to spaces, but to actions, words, sounds and objects. Any action, word, sound or object has the potential to become a piece of theatre. In Williams’ hands, they become a very good one.