July 12, 2014
HE may have been dead for almost 1000 years but Macbeth, the Scottish striver who makes Irvine “Trainspotting’’ Welsh look like an altar boy, has never been sexier.
This is not lost on Hugo Weaving, who is about to play the ignoble Thane, one of Shakespeare’s most violent (and that’s saying something) and inexplicable characters, for the Sydney Theatre Company.
On the day we talk, the American press is full of excited reviews of Kenneth Branagh’s epic-scale, broadswords-brandishing, full of sound and fury Macbeth at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Inhabiting the same imaginative space as Sir Kenneth is enough to make any actor nervous. Add the fact Michael Fassbender, one of the hottest actors on the planet, will soon bring Macbeth to the big screen, in a film directed by Australian Justin Kurzel (Snowtown), and the heat would seem to be on.
But it’s not for Weaving, at least not in a peer pressure sense. He can’t wait to see Kurzel’s Macbeth, which was filmed mainly in Scotland. “He’s the perfect director for it.’’ And Fassbender? “He is fantastic.’’
What’s more, Weaving has been catching up with some of the great Macbeths in preparation for his debut in the challenging role. There’s a lot available because, as he says, it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most cinematic play. There’s Orson Welles directing himself to doom in 1948, Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 samurai reimagining Throne of Blood and grief-stricken Roman Polanski going full gore in 1971 (“fabulous”, Weaving says of that film). He wishes he had seen Anthony Sher — for some the greatest Macbeth — on stage in the late 1990s.
“I’m not an actor to say ‘no, no, no, I’m doing this so I’m not going to look at other people doing it.’ F. k that,’’ Weaving says.
“I’ll go and see as many things as I can because I love the play and I love other actors and I love the way people try to solve problems that are inherent in the play, and in their particular production.’’
Macbeth, generally dated to 1606 (James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne in 1603), is full of inherent problems, most of them rooted in the psychology of brave Macbeth himself, a loyal laird who lists all the reasons not to kill his king, then kills him anyway; a fearless warrior in a testosterone-ruled world who sees ghosts and is unmanned by his wife; a man who at the end knows fighting is futile and decides to fight.
It’s clear Weaving is thinking through these conundrums when we meet early in the rehearsal process. He’s waiting in a sunny lounge area at the STC’s harbourfront headquarters, a heavily underlined copy of the play in his hands. It’s a glorious early winter day and it’s tempting to say the setting is nothing like 11th-century Scotland — but then what setting would be, aside from 11th-century Scotland?
Sydney-based Weaving, 54, says he is done with Middle Earth and Marvel action heroes and is most interested in small Australian films and the theatre. “I love Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare — that’s where I am,’’ he says.
“Macbeth is pretty much my favourite play. It isn’t perfect but it excites me more than anything else. It’s the play I am consistently drawn back to thinking about — this fascinating character, appallingly tragic and compellingly repulsive.
“It’s the leanest play in many ways, more focused than others, and it has a sort of hideous propulsion to it — it moves like the clappers and is just so dark and thrilling.’’
Some critics have suggested Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most evil character. Consider some of the people he murders or has murdered: his king, Duncan (along with his unfortunate guards), his best friend, Banquo, the wife and children of his fellow nobleman Macduff. All in the name of his “vaulting ambition’’.
Weaving thinks hard about this. “I don’t think so,’’ he says eventually. “I’ve always thought Iago (from Othello) and Richard III were more the villains, the ones who demand the audience become complicit in what they do from the word go.
“They say,’’ — he punches his fist into his open palm — “ ‘I’m this! This is who I am! I’m a villain and you’re coming with me.’
“Macbeth doesn’t operate like that. He does have a dialogue with the audience but he seems to be saying, ‘I’ve got these things in me and I don’t want to know about them.’ And he seems to be asking the audience to understand that. He’s more human, more conflicted than Iago or Richard.’’
The STC’s Macbeth, directed by Kip Williams and with Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth and John Gaden and Robert Menzies also in the cast, will be starker than Branagh’s lavish production. There will be just eight actors (“There’s quite a lot of doubling,’’ Weaving says) and in an interesting innovation the audience will be seated on the stage and the drama will unfold against the backdrop of the empty auditorium.
“We will enter the space, pretty unadorned,’’ Weaving says, gesturing to his jeans and casual shirt, “and start telling the story.
“So it’s doesn’t have a ‘This is 1100 in Scotland’ or ‘This is Nazi Germany’ feel about it. We’ll just tell you the story.’’
Weaving is unsure whether the production will include swords and fight scenes (in the play most of the action takes place offstage, and is reported by the characters) but says he is preparing for what he expects to be a physically demanding role.
“There may well be a sequence of fights, however it is done, that bring Macbeth to a state of exhaustion. That may or may not mean that Hugo will be brought to a state of exhaustion.’’
We do know, however, that Hugo will end up losing his head. Weaving laughs at this and then recites Macbeth’s final lines, where he realises the witches’ prophecies have all come to pass, including the man opposite him wielding a broadsword, Macduff, being “of no woman born” because he was delivered by caesarean section.
So why does he fight? “There is something compelling about that aspect of his personality, isn’t there?’’ Weaving says. “However much you have jettisoned your empathy for him by this stage, there is something compelling about his sheer will to keep on living — for as long as he’s got — on his own terms.
“There’s also a sense that if it’s over — just before that he says ‘while I see lives, the gashes do better on them’ — he may as well take a few out with him. It’s got to the stage where all he’s got left is his sword.’’
THE FIFA World Cup is in full swing when we talk and Weaving admits to taking a passing interest in the deeds of the African champions, Nigeria. He was born in the then Nigeria Protectorate in 1960 to English parents. The family moved between England, Australia and South Africa when he was young before settling in Australia when he was 16. He completed his schooling in Sydney and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1981.
That background came in useful for the performance that first brought Weaving to local attention, in a role that most Australians would consider far more villainous than Macbeth: the English cricket captain Douglas Jardine in the 1984 television series Bodyline.
He continued to build a name in TV in the 80s, in series such as The Dirtwater Dynasty and Bangkok Hilton, before his breakthrough film role as a blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof in 1991. Weaving was named best actor at the Australian Film Institute Awards, with Russell Crowe picking up the supporting actor award for the same film.
Weaving’s international breakthrough came three years later when he squeezed into a frock for Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In 1999 he glided into the blockbuster club as Agent Smith in The Matrix, a role he reprised in two sequels.
He was Elven master Elrond in Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings and two Hobbit films, the second and said to be last of which, The Battle of the Five Armies, is due for release later this year. He’s also had a recurring role in the Transformer films, played supervillain Red Skull in a Captain America movie and the anarchist V in the graphic novel adaptation V for Vendetta.
At the same time he continued to make small, interesting Australian films: The Interview, Little Fish, Last Ride and, last year, Ivan Sven’s Mystery Road and the Robert Connolly-curated The Turning, an ambitious adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2005 short-story collection, with each of the book’s 12 tales in the hands of a different director. Weaving’s turn was in The Commission, the directorial debut of his friend (and fellow Sydney Swans supporter) David Wenham.
“It was fantastic to work on Daisy’s first thing as a director,’’ he says. “I loved doing it and I think it was an accomplishment on the part of Robert to bring all those people together, even if it was a difficult ask for some people to sit and watch the whole thing.’’
So far this year he has completed three modest-budget Australian films: the drug smuggling drama The Mule and the yet-to-be-released Healing, set in a prison, and Strangerland, centred on the disappearance of two teenagers in the bush. He has also done a lot of theatre in the past few years, most of it for the Cate Blanchett-Andrew Upton run STC: Uncle Vanya, Dangerous Liaisons, Waiting for Godot and now Macbeth.
“I’ve done more theatre in the past four years than I have done since I left drama school,’’ he notes. “It just sort of evolved that way, the relationship with Cate and Andrew just meant one thing led to another.’’
Of his experience in blockbuster franchise films such as The Matrix, he says: “You try something out, you think, ‘I haven’t done one so let’s go see what it’s like.’ But I’ve had enough of that stuff. It just doesn’t do it for me.’’
Television, however, is a different matter. For someone who got his start on the small screen, Weaving has done surprisingly little of it since. It’s even more surprising these days, when television is the place everyone wants to be. Indeed there’s a Shakespearean sense to the best long-form TV dramas: think of Game of Thrones as Macbeth with dragons, or Kevin Spacey (who was a mean Richard III) channelling the ruthless regent in House of Cards.
Weaving says he’s been so immersed in preparing for Macbeth that he’s not up to date with the hit TV shows, though adds he’s “a bit of a Mad Men freak’’.
“I would love to do something, if there was a terrific idea for an extended series,’’ he continues. “To be able to explore a character over an extended period of time, that would be the appeal, to just keep on illuminating that character each week — that would be an interesting thing for me as an actor.’’
ONE of the mysteries of Macbeth the man is why he lets his wife shame him into committing a regicide he knows is a low act and sure to be unpopular. He should “against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself’’; decent Duncan’s “virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against the deep damnation of his taking-off’’.
Weaving has an interesting take on this. He’s been thinking a lot about the pivotal “screw your courage to the sticking place’’ scene where Lady Macbeth tells her husband he will be less than a man if he doesn’t go through with it. She recalls having had a child suckle on her breast and says she would have — “while it was smiling in my face’’ — dashed out its brains “had I so sworn as you have done to do this’’.
“I think their relationship is so strong; in many ways they only seem to have each other. Maybe she’s the only person in the world who knows his real self,’’ Weaving says.
“But what specifically is it in that particular scene, when she goads him about his manhood? I think it has something to do with her mention of the fact she has had a child.
“Whose child is it? Is it theirs? What happened to it? Was there a terrible loss of a child, something that made them cling to each other more?
“There’s a conflict in him that he’s aware of but doesn’t want to see — and she shines a light on it.’’
Part of Macbeth’s tragedy is that he has no heir. At his first meeting with the three weird sisters he is told that while he will be king, it is Banquo who will be the father of kings.
This is another aspect of Macbeth’s life — like the murdering — that Weaving will have to imagine himself into. He and his long-term partner Katrina Greenwood have two grown children, Harry and Holly. Harry, 24, graduated from NIDA in 2012 and, as Harry Greenwood, is starting to make his way in theatre and film. He was excellent as computer geek Zac in the just concluded ABC TV drama Old School, starring Sam Neill and Bryan Brown.
Weaving is delighted to hear this praise for his son’s work — but confesses he’s yet to see all the Old School episodes he is in. “As soon as I am out of Macbethville I will catch up with them,’’ he promises.
Macbeth is at the Sydney Theatre Company from July 21 to September 27.