July 25, 2014
The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth gives Barry Hearst something to stew over.
The reviewer attended a preview performance.
After watching the STC’s new production of Macbeth I struggled to sleep last night. No doubt eating a beef and carrot stew half an hour before bed contributed to my restlessness, but the main problem was I couldn’t stop thinking about the bold, brilliant, and occasionally baffling interpretation of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy.
The moment the audience filed into the Sydney Theatre we knew we were in for something different. The seats were on the stage, staring into the cavernous auditorium. The tiered seating would have been tight for the tall or the tubby. Any complaints were muted.
In the opening scenes the play felt like a read-through, with the cast seated around two trestle tables. The witches – played by Robert Menzies, Kate Box, and Ivan Donato – passed around a plastic container filled with water, dunked their heads and blew bubbles. Maybe cauldrons are hard to source.
When Melita Jurisic, as a wounded sergeant, drank from a mug then dribbled fake blood down her raincoat in an almost comical representation of battle wounds, it was clear director Kip Williams didn’t have naturalism as a goal.
Jurisic rolled straight into the role of Lady Macbeth, her face still smeared with fake blood. She seemed bat-shit crazy from the outset and it was hard to believe that Macbeth would have taken a word of her advice to seize power from King Duncan.
I would have paid good money to see some of the early rehearsals for the offbeat production…
Kip Williams: “Ivan, can you take a bap in each hand and slap them against your cheeks like they’re powder puffs.”
Ivan Donato as a witch: “Excuse me?”
Williams: “The baps, the bread rolls”
Donato: “I know what baps are but why am I slapping them against my cheeks.”
Williama: “Trust me, go with it. Now Hugo, sit down so the witches can pour pancake batter over your head.”
Did the actors gather over drinks and wonder, “Is this bloke bloody mad?” or were they gung-ho from the get go? Their faith in Williams paid off.
I will admit that I was a little confused by the play occasionally. With costumes light on – a crown for a king, an Elizabethan ruff for Malcolm, and not much else – it could be hard to follow characters through the acts.
At the same time it allowed for suprisingly moving moments, like seeing veteran actor John Gaden convincingly play a young son to Paula Arundell’s Lady Macduff, though she must be more than three decades his junior. That Gaden played King Duncan and Arundell played Banquo a few scenes earlier didn’t undermine this poignant moment.
These characters whirled around Macbeth as he betrayed loyalties in his pursuit for power, then saw his world fall around him. Hugo Weaving was compelling in the lead role and it was strange to find yourself sympathising with the cruel dictator he became.
Maybe it’s because there was a sense that we weren’t just watching characters. Through the set design, casting choices, and costumes we were always conscious that these were actors playing out a script. This could have created a distancing effect but instead the audience was more engaged, as they created Macbeth’s world in their minds’ eye.
As Weaving yelled, with a little more sound and fury than was necessary, that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” there was a sense it wasn’t just Macbeth the character howling with rage but the actor stuck in that role, and in a way he was yelling for all of us.
Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, with stew rumbling in my stomach, I was reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman (reviewed here by the late Roger Ebert).
That film showed us a director failing to direct the life he hoped for – as most of us will fail. In this play, placed on the stage as the audience was, we are reminded how we are all actors in our own lives. We get caught up in plays we don’t expect to, and struggle with other characters whose motives we can only guess at. Macbeth doesn’t show a way to navigate that reality, but there is a something admirable in the way he continues to battle against his doomed fate.
There is a lot more to say about the play but the truth is I’m still working out what I think of it (and I’m bloody tired).
I’ll finish by paraphrasing Roger Ebert, from the review linked to above…
I think you have to see Kip Williams’ Macbeth twice. I watched it the first time and knew it was a great play and that I had not mastered it. I’ll watch it a second time because I need to. And a third time because I will want to.