Canberra Critics Circle
August 13, 2014
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Sydney Theatre Company: director, Kip Williams; designer, Alice Babidge; lighting designer, Nick Schlieper; composer and sound designer, Max Lyandvert. At Sydney Theatre July 21 – September 27, 2014.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
This staging of Macbeth is brilliant but flawed. Macbeth himself is brilliant but flawed: that’s why the play is a tragedy. Hugo Weaving, who plays Macbeth, is brilliant, but not flawed. Overall the production is not a tragedy, but rather like Macbeth’s character, it contains conflicting elements.
Shakespeare, as Weaving so magnificently demonstrates, give us a clear and detailed understanding of the character who is determined to be king at any cost, and therefore believes what his witches and ghosts would have him believe. Unable to recognise that these are the figments of his wishful thinking, not solid truths, the gap between the extremity of his actions and his underlying guilt widens until he is mentally torn apart.
This constitutes the brilliance of this production, where Weaving is thoroughly supported by all the ensemble of actors: Paula Arundell (Banquo / Lady Macduff); Kate Box (Macduff / Witch); Ivan Donato (Seyton / Witch); Eden Falk (Malcolm / Fleance / Apparition); John Gaden (Duncan / Old Man / Young Macduff / Apparition); Melita Jurisic (Lady Macbeth / Bloody Captain / Apparition); Robert Menzies (Witch / Rosse / Porter).
The cast list and their characters may give you some surprises, and some clue as to what I see as a flaw in the direction, which results in some design issues (though Alice Babidge creates some highly successful solutions).
The conceit (using the term as in John Donne’s poems, for the sake of some reference to Shakespeare’s period) seems to be that a group of actors have come together to explore the nature of this play, Macbeth. For some reason unknown to those of us who have been invited to watch this improvisation / workshop, it happens that there are only eight actors, only three of whom are women. It might be thought that, gender balance being an important concern in modern times, the parts might be passed around so that everyone has a fair go at significant roles.
Because we audience are backstage rather than frontstage, we find ourselves looking down onto an extended apron from temporary bleacher seats set up on the stage. We are not comfortable. It could be said to be true that I sat on the edge of my seat for two hours, but mostly not because of the emotional impact of the show. It was to stop my circulation being cut off by the edge of the seat.
I thought for some time that this was a device to tell me that Macbeth is an unsettling play, but as time went along it was the quality of the acting by Hugo Weaving of Macbeth and Melita Jurisic of Lady Macbeth that told me this. It was her mad scene and his response to her breakdown that made me forget that damn’d seat.
The point is that on the one hand we seemed to be watching actors acting a play – very Brechtian in concept I suppose – but in some scenes we seemed to watching a play as if it were ‘real’. Our ‘distance’ was deliberately maintained until after Duncan’s murder (for example, as witches dunked their faces in a plastic bowl of water to represent their cauldron, or death was represented by splashing fake blood onto Duncan’s face, among many other such devices). Then the acting area was engulfed in stage fog for the porter’s ‘knock, knock, knock, who’s there’ scene, as if the group of actors around the long table had been whisked away and we were now transported to Shakespeare’s mediaeval castle.
Of course, this illusion of reality was still surrounded by all the backstage lights, an impressive sound track, and the fake smoke, so the Brechtian insistence on us knowing we were watching a play was not broken. But from then on we were switched on and off from one ‘reality’ – the actors’ improvisation around Shakespeare’s words, in rehearsal clothes with bits of costumes added where they thought necessary – to the other apparent reality of scenes like Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost, or persuading thugs to kill Banquo and Fleance, while at the end there was a weird mix of Macbeth with a hugely long sword being defeated by a female Macduff by her words and a splash of fake blood.
I had read in a newspaper interview that the placing of the audience on the stage, and the action taking place in the auditorium would be a ‘surprise’. I suppose, as a one-time drama teacher and observer of theatre since the 1960s, I might be expected to not be surprised by such playing around with convention. I certainly didn’t notice anyone else being surprised the night I saw the show. Some laughed rather nervously as they had to ask others to stand on tiptoe so they could be squeezed past to get to seats, along rows set far too close for comfort.
For the convention of a play (Macbeth) within a play (of actors rehearsing or workshopping), looking down onto the apron with the empty seats in the auditorium rising on the other side, and some of the action being played among those seats, worked quite well. Macduff and Malcolm were in England up in about Row J while Macbeth was pacing about in Scotland on the apron below them, where he had just killed Lady Macduff and her young son, played by the same John Gaden in modern casual dress who had recently been Duncan alive and dead, and later was an old man fearful for the future of Scotland.
But the breaking in and out of this convention, despite the power of the acting, left me unsettled. Was I supposed to be focussing on, and being appreciative of the actors’ skills in clarifying Shakespeare’s text, which was certainly very well done; or was I supposed to be absorbed in the story and the interplay of Shakespeare’s characters, and the implications for life today (just as he was using past history to imply concerns about the abuse of power in his own day)?
In the end I have to conclude that this production of Macbeth is an interesting but not entirely original experiment. For me the experimentation, though cleverly and skilfully done by the actors and designers, got in the way of the absorption in the drama, which I think was what Shakespeare was on about.