Eight nights a week
July 28, 2014
Sydney Theatre, July 25. Until September 27
It’s a design statement calculated to make superstitious old thesps shudder and production accountants weep.
Alice Babidge’s design for this Sydney Theatre Company production turns the conventional theatre arrangement around so that the audience, limited to 360 per show in a venue that usually holds 900, views the action against the backdrop of the empty auditorium. The proscenium and the first five rows of stalls seats have been removed and replaced with a broad black playing area. Behind it, the empty seats look unsettlingly like headstones.
Hugo Weaving as Macbeth (pic by Brett Boardman)
Macbeth begins with the cast in their civvies (Babidge’s idea of civvies, that is, dreary as) taking places at a long table and the play starts without ceremony. Robert Menzies, Ivan Donato and Kate Box dunk their faces in a plastic tub of water to become the witches. Melita Jurisic’s Bloody Captain dribbles gore down his plastic mac while John Gaden’s Duncan holds court at the end of the table. Macbeth (Hugo Weaving) sits centre, brooding. It’s the calm before the storm.
Weaving lets rip with a “So foul and so fair a day …” that sounds as like its escaping from a boiler. His way with Shakespeare’s prose is musical, full of colour and modulation. The conflicting impulses of kinsman and regicide are vividly displayed.
Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth is no less sonorous and in their scenes together the text sings. To ears attuned to the more downbeat way actors have been speaking Shakespeare of late, however, they run the risk of appearing overwrought or somehow “other” in a world in which everyone else acts in a more subdued range.
Director Kip Williams’s conjures an atmosphere from a mix of rehearsal room homespun and large-scale though primitive effects. Death comes with a splash of stage blood from a coffee mug. An ominous underscore is created by actors drumming their fists on the table. In one memorably quirky moment, Menzies effects a quick-change into a witch by face-planting a cake.
The unruly night of Duncan’s murder is called up in a dense gust of stage smoke that fills the space until it’s blasted away by industrial fans. A lengthy glitter drop rains throughout the early scenes of Act V unhelpfully recalls Benedict Andrews’s War of the Roses. Macbeth’s last battle is rendered as strobe-lit choreography (Nigel Poulton, fight director; Nick Schlieper, lights) and is the most arresting image of the entire production.
The auditorium is used sparingly. In fact, the production seems so keen to avoid charges of gimmickry, it’s hardly used at all. Banquo (Paula Arundell) is stabbed after a brief chase in the middle stalls. Malcolm (Eden Falk) plots revenge with MacDuff (Kate Box, very effective) in the dress circle.
Macbeth’s final encounter with MacDuff sidesteps the difficulties inherent in swordplay by delivering a pre-exhausted Macbeth into the scene. It works – just – but we are denied the visceral thrills of the greatest showdown in Shakespeare.
At the end, Macbeth lies dead among the glitter while Malcolm is ceremonially dressed in ornate doublet and white stockings, as if he’s about to star in some outmoded, grandiose production on an adjacent stage. Given he’s about to be “crown’d at Scone”, in a sense, I suppose, he is. But I’d venture many in the audience will be unsure as to what the message is.
And what to make of the dead Macbeth getting up and presenting himself expressionless to the audience before stalking offstage? Amused snorts on opening night suggest this moment needs some fine-tuning.
Image Brett Boardman