July 22, 2014
All the world might be a stage but the view from Sydney Theatre’s performance area is remarkably gloomy.
Lighting rigs and mechanical hoists for lifting scenery dangle overhead while rows of seats recede into a darkness lit only by neon exit signs.
Resembling gravestones, the hundreds of empty seats form the backdrop to the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth, the company’s sixth production of the Scottish play.
The cast, led by Hugo Weaving, who was in the STC’s 1982 production of Macbeth, will share the stage with 300 or so audience members perched in makeshift bleachers on small but well-padded seats.
It is an intimate setting for Shakespeare’s grisly tale of murder and deceit, and the show’s designer Alice Babidge says flying liquids and limbs may be a concern for the front rows.
“There’s a lot of killing [but] I feel like we’ve been incredibly, incredibly plain in our use of blood,” she says.
Turning the theatre back-to-front posed a few conundrums for the show’s lighting designer Nick Schlieper.
“You realise theatres are built to light in the opposite direction,” he says.
“A year ago in a very blase way I said to the company ‘No, no, you shouldn’t be budgeting to hang a million lights in the auditorium because that would completely defeat the purpose of this exercise’.
“About two months ago, I thought I better start doing my homework.”
The STC is not the first company to turn a theatre around, but placing the audience on stage is risky, not least because it means the play can only be performed to a maximum of 360 people each night rather than filling the 896 seats.
An STC spokesman says the reduced capacity of the auditorium had influenced the setting of a 10-week season for Macbeth although the show’s tickets had not been priced higher than other productions.
Beyond the practical dilemmas thrown up by reversing the flow of action inside the Sydney Theatre was a deeper question, Schlieper says. “The important thing is that it actually feels like there’s a reason in the context of this production for doing it rather than being a gimmick.”
This concern is echoed by Babidge: “My biggest concern at first was that it didn’t feel tricksy.”
Giving audiences a new view of a theatre they know inside-out was one of the motivations behind the production articulated by the STC’s artistic director Andrew Upton.
Babidge has stripped the theatre of its proscenium, five rows of seats and exposed the flytower, fire hydrants and other stage machinery that is normally hidden from the audience.
“You’re met with a space that looks like a theatre, but a slightly more sparse version,” says Babidge, who will oversee the staging of the STC’s production of The Maids, starring Cate Blanchett, in New York next month before returning to Australia to begin work on the film adaptation of Holding the Man.
However, the duo does not expect their stage design will take the limelight from Weaving and the other actors.
“I think we’ll get five minutes of ‘Oh, I never knew all of this was back here’ and then hopefully they completely forget all about that until the lights come up at the end of the show and they’re reminded they’ve been sitting back here,” Schlieper says.
Macbeth is at Sydney Theatre from Friday until September 27.