July 14, 2014
Hugo Weaving emerges from the Macbeth rehearsal room wearing black jeans, black work boots and a black T-shirt that is wet around the neck and chest with … something.
“I’ve been doused!” he announces, stretching the shirt away from his body. “I’m a bit wet. Don’t worry, it is only water… for now.”
“There will be blood,” adds director Kip Williams.
Weaving, 54, and Williams, 28, are working together to create a radical new production of Macbeth for the Sydney Theatre Company. Sitting on two big, squashy couches on an enclosed balcony overlooking the harbour, the young director and the charismatic stage and film star, take their time talking about their mountainous project. Williams is softly spoken. Weaving leans in to listen carefully.
The idea Williams outlines is mind-bending and, from a box-office perspective, financially counter-intuitive.
“I have this image of an empty theatre,” Williams says. “Macbeth as a lone figure, standing among 900 empty seats. That emptiness speaks to the core of his tragedy and the type of isolation he feels. The production will be quite naked, just eight actors in a space telling this story. The audience will have the story exist primarily in their imaginations. We are asking them to do a lot of imaginative work.”
“After all, Macbeth himself does a lot of imaginative work,” Weaving adds. “It’s one of his big problems that he can’t contain this fearful, feverish imagination that he has. So in a way, it’s great that you’re allowing the audience to work in the same way.”
In Williams’ production, Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy will be rendered as an intimate spectacle by turning the theatre back to front. Instead of sitting comfortably in the 900 plush red seats of the Sydney Theatre, a much smaller audience of 360 will be in raked seating on the stage. The actors will perform right in front of them, as well as in the cavernous auditorium among those empty seats. The audience will be directly facing the seats looking out at the view normally seen only by the actors. But there will be no sea of faces staring back at them. The theatre will be eerily empty.
“That empty stillness in a theatre can be quite spooky,” says Weaving. “When I first saw the set model, I got this … feeling.” Weaving stops mid-sentence and makes his whole torso shudder, as if he has chills.
“It’s a feeling of great excitement,” Weaving says. “None of us really know how this is going to work. The audience will come in thinking, ‘this isn’t theatre as I know it, so what is it?’ It puts everyone in a less knowing, more open environment and that’s really liberating.”
The idea for the unusual staging occured when Williams was assisting STC artistic director Andrew Upton on his production of The White Guard at the Sydney Theatre in 2011. It was Williams’ first gig with the STC, aged 25.
“Andrew and I were walking around the stage and looking out at the theatre,” Williams recalls. “We started a conversation about what it would be like to place the audience on the stage and that conversation pretty quickly moved into discussions about the Scottish play. It was the first play we thought of.
“It’s pretty unusual. Usually the play comes first and the design second. But in this case, the space itself conjured up the play. Something to do with the ghostly haunting image of looking out into those empty seats evoked Macbeth himself.”
There is something inherently unsettling in those 900 seats staring back at you, says Williams. “You have at once a sense of the structure of a society before you and you have the ghosts of all those audiences past. It creates a kind of haunting pressure.”
Upton suggested the play to Weaving, who had recently thrilled audiences in Uncle Vanya, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Waiting for Godot. Weaving, who has never played Macbeth before, jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the play,” Weaving says. “You can’t pin Macbeth down. He’s not one thing. He is as complex as we all are and more so. He is as complex and contradictory as life. So I’m increasingly expanding my sense of where you can go with the role. It’s great, but also terrifying.”
Williams, who is co-resident director at the STC (alongside Sarah Goodes whose production of The Effect will play at the same time as Macbeth), made an impact on audiences and critics alike with his productions of Under Milk Wood (2012) and Romeo and Juliet (2013).
He says he wants to challenge the traditional idea of Macbeth as a morality play. “By the end of Act IV, Macbeth is usually seen as a monster, a villain. As an audience, we are let off the hook. His self-destruction is depicted in a way where you can say that’s happening to someone who is not me. The great challenge for Hugo, who will be on stage for the entire play, is to find a way to make Macbeth someone the audience identifies with and then think, ‘I could be capable of doing these things’. It takes an actor of great heart to be able to lead an audience to a cliff face and get them to jump off. Hugo is one of those actors.”
Weaving once said he thought he was too young to tackle Godot, but he believes he is the perfect age for Macbeth. “I think with the great writing, the older you are the better you get at it because your life experience is such that you have a greater comprehension of what’s contained in a particular idea,” Weaving says.
“Macbeth has this great, active virility to him, a physical nature. But at the same time he’s got to have a sense of his life becoming like a yellow leaf.
“His sense of self crumbles away as the play progresses. It becomes a journey into a disordered mind and a disordered world. That’s something I can relate to. As I get older, all sorts of things I thought were true and I thought I understood well, I don’t any more. My sense of what defines who I am … I don’t know. I just get more and more confused. So from that perspective the journey is quite confronting.”
Williams says the production is not set in any particular time or place, and that Alice Babidge’s design will rely on minimal costuming and props. The text itself has not been significantly cut or changed beyond having actors play multiple roles.
Weaving says he admires Williams’ ability to be prepared and then “chuck it all out”.
When asked if he feels any pressure taking on the role of Macbeth, he pauses to think. “I know the audience expectations will be massive,” Weaving says. “But I don’t feel an inordinate sense of having to carry anything, no. It will feel like an ensemble piece. Even if you’re psychologically focusing on the journey of this man, in terms of the doing of it, it will feel like we’re all on stage together telling a story.”
He says it’s important for actors not to get lost in themselves. “You are telling a story. It’s not about you,” he says. “But you need to allow things to come out that you haven’t planned. So you need to be in a situation where you’re not particularly in control or you are vulnerable. That is something I love about acting. But it’s also the very thing that terrifies me. And that’s one of the things that terrifies Macbeth.”
Macbeth opens at the Sydney Theatre on July 25.
The ghosts of Macbeth
From voodoo to poo jokes,the Scottish play has seen many incarnations.
Widely studied at high school, regularly performed and adapted into film versions several times (by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, and by Australia’s Geoffrey Wright and Justin Kurzel), Macbeth is Shakespeare’s best-known tragedy. That level of familiarity has allowed theatremakers to look beyond the simple duties of storytelling. While recognisable, some staged versions of Macbeth have been very strange indeed.
Who could forget the sight of British actor Stephen Dillane murdering himself in his one-man Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy), which, after garnering reviews ranging from bemused to hostile in Los Angeles and London, played at the Sydney Theatre in 2006. Accompanied by an ambient jazz trio, Dillane played 30 or more characters, many of them indistinguishable. “A bloody awful production,” fumed critic Charles Spencer in London’s Telegraph. “In short, this solo Macbeth isn’t just garbage – it’s arrogantly elitist garbage that makes Shakespeare seem at once absurd and inaccessible.” Sydney theatregoers, many of whom crept out during the show, could only agree.
In a recent and rather better reviewed one-man version directed by English director John Tiffany, actor Alan Cumming, performing in Glasgow, drew rave notices for a Macbeth as experienced in the mind of a patient in an insane asylum. “Presented like this,” wrote The Guardian’s reviewer, “ … characters become shards of a single fragmented personality, a man plagued by the projections of his own mind.”
In 2003, British theatre company Punchdrunk created an award-winning immersive, site-specific rendering of Macbeth titled Sleep No More, in which the cast performed wordless interpretive scenes from the play to an audience compelled to wear masks and remain silent. In another immersive Macbeth that has recently opened in London, the audience spends 12 hours with the story as it unfolds in the rooms, corridors, car parks and basements of a soon-to-be-renovated tower block in the city’s East End.
Many productions have transported the Macbeth story from Dark Ages Scotland. Welles created the “Voodoo Macbeth” in 1936, which transported the action to a witchcraft-stricken, 19th-century Haiti. South African playwright Welcome Msomi translatedMacbeth into the Zulu uMabatha in 1970 and the Shogun Macbeth, set in 13th-century Japan, earned rave reviews on its debut in New York in 1986.
There are comic Macbeths, too. Poo, bum and wee jokes flew thick and fast in Bell Shakespeare’s production of author Andy Griffiths’ Just Macbeth! in which the characters of his much-loved Just series, Andy, Lisa and Danny, made a witch’s brew from eye of newt, dog spit and Whizz Fizz and found themselves transported to ancient Scotland.
Sydney audiences have also been treated to the multi-skilled Canadian performer Rick Miller’s solo MacHomer, in which Homer and Marge Simpson are Lord and Lady Macbeth, neighbour Ned Flanders is Banquo, and nuclear plant owner Montgomery Burns is Duncan. “Have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” asked Flanders/Banquo. “Mmmmm …” drooled MacHomer, momentarily distracted from his dreams of ultimate power. “Insaaaaane root …”