Shakespeare shines brightest in this pared-back and punchy production
When STC announced that its Macbeth would reverse the space at Sydney Theatre (the audience on stage; the actors in the auditorium), one assumed they had some dramaturgical purpose in mind – some way in which this concept would elucidate or recast Shakespeare’s play.
As it turns out, that’s not really the point in Kip Williams’ production – although arguably, putting the audience on the stage positions us to throw our lot in with the actors (per the final act: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.”).
In fact, the staging conceit seems more about novelty and experimentation (and, as STC artistic director Andrew Upton pointed out at the 2014 season launch, those seats look like an awful lot like headstones when they are backlit – appropriate for a death-riddled play).
Still: the novelty of the experience and the way that Williams and his design team have used the space is so visually striking and dramatically effective that you can’t grumble. Heck, there’s a chase sequence around the stalls, and it’s fun.
The production opens with a lo-fi set up: at the front of the stage, with the auditorium of seats ranged behind it, sits a long trestle table with eight different chairs around it. On the table is a simple golden crown and a white bucket of water; over the back of one chair is a king’s raiment of scarlet velvet and spotted white ermine; on the back of another hangs a wig of long blond hair. The actors enter wearing their civvies, and take their seats around the table.
The scene begins – Robert Menzies, Kate Box and Ivan Donato thrust their heads into the buckets and blow bubbles in the water; instantly a cauldron is conjured, or sinister swampy eruptions. The Weird sisters are in the house.
In the next scene another actor, performing the ‘Captain’, quaffs blood from a coffee mug and spits it out and down her front, conjuring battle injuries (and calling to mind Benedict Andrews’ use of blood on the same stage for War of the Roses).
The play goes on like this, with minimal props and the actors creating many of the effects themselves – but the aesthetic takes an abrupt turn after Macbeth murders Duncan, with smoke machines and fans creating a thick, swirling atmosphere from which increasing horror emerges. Sound designer Max Lyandvert provides bass-notes of unease, and set-pieces become more elaborate and unsettling: a table laid with china- and silver-ware, candlesticks and red and white roses; a sequence in which Macbeth is surrounded by seven performers each wearing the murdered Banquo’s death-mask.
As expected, set/costume designer Alice Babidge and lighting designer Nick Schlieper, whose work on Benedict Andrews’ The Maids and War of the Roses could have passed for fine art, create moments of simple but stunning beauty – not least of all a final scene that rivals the ‘rain of gold’ in War of the Roses.
The simplicity of the staging throughout throws Shakespeare’s gorgeous poetic language into relief, and gives his gothic imagery – bats and blood, supernatural phenomena (Floating daggers! Witches! Visions!) and atmospheric events – plenty of room to breathe. One quickly realises that this is a play worth seeing for the language alone.
Some of the cast deliver their lines better than others: predictably, John Gaden, a veteran of the stage, shines here – he speaks Shakespeare’s language as though it were his native tongue, and his natural cadence better allows the interpretation of each phrase’s meaning. Menzies and Weaving also know what they’re doing, and are a pleasure to hear. Melita Jurisic, a wild-haired prematurely-unhinged vision of Lady Mac, delivered less intuitively on the night in question (Monday July 28), and many of her lines seemed almost indecipherable by comparison.
Once you get over the surprise – it’s not a play amongst the seats; it’s not a star vehicle for Hugo – this emerges as a strong, satisfying, gimmick-free production in which Shakespeare’s text shines brightest.