July 17, 2014
When Sydney Theatre Company launched its 2014 season in September last year, one show stood out as an immediate talking point. A production of Macbeth, starring Hugo Weaving, would turn the 900-seat Sydney Theatre inside out, seating the audience onstage staring out into the empty auditorium, which would act as a backdrop to the action.
Directed by Kip Williams (who at the time of the launch was in rehearsals for a well-receivedRomeo and Juliet), the production triggered plenty of questions. What would the staging look like? Was it bold or foolish of STC to use their biggest theatre for audiences of only around 360 for a 10-week season? Was it an inspired artistic choice, or would it turn out to be a gimmicky spectacle?
But excitement and buzz saw tickets fly out the door, and the entire season (with the exception of the limited Suncorp Twenties and day-of performance tickets) has now been sold out for months.
The idea to invert the space came to Williams and STC artistic director Andrew Upton back in 2011, when Williams was fresh out of the NIDA directing course and assisting Upton on his adaptation of The White Guard.
“I grew up in Sydney,” says Williams, now 28 years old. “So I’d obviously seen a lot of shows in Sydney Theatre since it opened in 2004, but I’d never experienced what it was like to walk out onto that stage and look out into the empty theatre. Andrew and I were both there while the set was being built, and we began a conversation about what it would be like to stage a production where the audience sat on the stage and the performance happened before an empty theatre.”
Williams was throwing around ideas about which plays would work best with this non-conventional use of space, and was quickly led to Macbeth. Unbeknownst to him, Upton was at that point talking to Hugo Weaving about what roles he’d like to tackle with the company, and Macbeth was towards the top of the list.
“For this production, I needed an actor like Hugo,” Williams says, now in the final week of rehearsals. “He’s first and foremost an artist. He fights very passionately for the truth of his character and the story, and that’s all I could ask for. It’s that philosophy that you can stage a play in a telephone booth or an Olympic stadium, and if the actor is able to hold the truth and reality of their story, it doesn’t matter what space they’re in.”
Given the ambitious nature of the production, audiences may be surprised to see how simple and truthful it is, Williams says. The performance will largely take place on a platform in front of the stage, rather than around the empty seats of the auditorium.
“I find the most potent element of the empty theatre is the uninterrupted empty theatre. It sets up the force of a society and a world looming over the action.
“There’s a temptation in this production to look at the thousands of ways you can use the space interestingly. That’s not at the heart of why the space has been inverted. It’s about what the space offers dynamically, rather than as a trick. I always go over to the theatre and am met with all these possibilities — ‘what if people appeared from here, or there!’ — but it’s not all that useful.”
Last year, Williams reimagined Romeo and Juliet for today’s audience, taking a fair few liberties with the text and reframing the story as a generational conflict, with some fairly bold staging. He’s also reframing Macbeth to bring the audience closer to the central character, but isn’t touching the text as much as he did for Romeo and Juliet.
“Part of my frustration with the way Macbeth is often rendered and spoken about is that it’s some kind of morally prescriptive fable. I get really frustrated when I see any production that’s morally prescriptive. I don’t think that’s theatre or art’s function.”
While Sydney Theatre is known to be a difficult space to work in in its traditional set-up (intimate works can sometimes fail to translate for 900 audience members), Williams says his production isn’t intended to tackle what’s unwieldy about the space.
“The company is really excited about the way its audience will establish a new relationship with that space through this production,” he says. “But I think you could do a production of Macbethwith Hugo in it, around the other way in the theatre, and it would do fine, both artistically and commercially.”
Williams is being given a few extra technical rehearsal sessions to work out how the theatre will work in its new set-up, but says it still doesn’t seem quite enough.
“The theatre isn’t built, technically, to support this kind of production. It’s a very unusual play to rehearse, because usually I’ve sat in the theatre in which the show is going to be performed many times before directing the show, whereas in this one, there’s a slight hypothetical element at play in the room.”
But Williams has little time in his schedule to obsess and stress too much over the pressure of helming one of the most anticipated productions of the year.
“I have two days between Macbeth opening and the beginning of Children of the Sun rehearsals [which Williams is also directing]. And then I’m Andrew’s [Upton] associate for Cyrano de Bergerac, which starts two weeks after the opening of Children. There’ll be a week when I’m in rehearsals for Cyrano while both Children and Macbeth are running. I think having those other projects takes the pressure off.”
While some will undoubtedly feel that the production is tempting fate, Williams says nobody in the company is superstitious when it comes to the “Macbeth curse”.
“I had coffee with John Gaden [veteran of Australian theatre and Shakespeare] a few weeks before starting rehearsals, and I asked if he was superstitious, because I’d started calling it ‘the Scottish Play’, and he said it was all rubbish. If he told me he was deeply superstitious, that would’ve set the tone. We haven’t worried about that … but we do largely refer to it as ‘the Scottish Play’.”
Featured image: Eden Falk and Hugo Weaving in rehearsal. Photo by Grant Sparkes-Carroll
July 17, 2014