I don’t normally peruse others’ reviews before I blog. With this Macbeth, though, it was unavoidable. The actors had barely left the stage before the audience had their say on the rather “cozy” seating which apparently for someone constituted “the worst two hours of my life”. A lady behind me had moved on to “And the other thing I hated was…” before I’d even left my seat.
On a more cheerful note, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth was the highlight of my year so far. I’m a huge fan of Macbeth/Macbeth in itself, so I was bound to go from the second I heard someone was doing it. The news that it’d be “inside-out” – the audience sitting on the stage, facing the empty house – only added to my excitement, but if I’m honest, also made me a bit nervous. The potential for awesomeness was matched only by that for gimmickry, and, sidling up like the third Weird Sister, the possibility that awesomeness would be neutralised in an effort to avoid gimmickry.
However, it works pretty well and avoids all three pitfalls. The director, Kip Williams, uses the unique environment to set up an interesting spatiality. That remaining part of the stage not occupied by the audience becomes “here” – Dunsinane castle. The attack on Banquo (Paula Arundell) takes place in the stalls (with some exciting climbing-over-seats action), while Macduff (Kate Box) and Malcolm (Eden Falk) exile themselves to the dress circle. (It’s not entirely consistent: the heath scenes also take place onstage, perhaps because of the potion scene, which seems to inevitably call for mess – I’m not sure STC would be thrilled at having grape juice, flour, flowers, and… whatever that white stuff is… thrown all over their seats.)
In terms of relevance to the play, this spatiality is the most striking effect of the auditorium reversal. The sense of exile, scattering, and of a large kingdom (is the auditorium a kingdom ruled by an actor? Eek, the whole thing gives me that could-write-a-thesis-on-this feeling!) dovetails nicely with the play’s emphasis on the political chaos caused by the assassination of Duncan.
In a world where passengers are shot out of the sky and ISIS creates refugees by the hundred-thousand, this focus on disorder and alienation is up-to-the-minute. Duncan’s (John Gaden) murder (onstage, albeit in an abstract form) is followed an awesome, eerie thrumming – actually the cast banging their hands on the trestle tables that form the backbone of the set. This heralds the appearance of a huge amount of stage fog.
“And when they brought out all that smoke, I thought I was going to choke…” So said post-show whinger #326. But even I have to admit that the effect is visceral. Shot through with orange light, its most innocent likeness is that of a bushfire smoke – that singular realisation that the borders of shadows just aren’t quite right today. After that there’s no shortage of referents, even as you know (though can barely see) that you’re in a theatre (though the wrong part of it) and that stuff would have to be certified non-allergenic.
The fog is somehow perfectly judged so the audience can see the upstage area but not downstage (for simplicity I’m using those terms as though we were in our “usual” seats), allowing the action to continue coloured, but undisrupted, by this smoky visitation. Characters emerge from the haze, for a disorientating rendition of the Porter and “Ring the alarum bells” scenes. Here the visual obstruction allows the cast to give the impression of a large-scale panic of voices.
This is a highly-effective sequence, not only for its sensory excess, but also the unity of its thematic vision. However, I guess I should qualify my earlier praise of the play’s political focus by saying that such focus is evident mostly through its sustained emphasis in these three or four scenes. And this is a bit of a problem with the production; there’s a lot of good stuff going on – great acting especially, and cool staging – but there seems to be a lack of an overall vision thematically.
At various points the play is seemingly invested with some overarching directorial meaning – an effort to unify the production through an aspect of the text – at others more or less straightforwardly (though brilliantly, of course) acting the characters. This disconcerting alternation feels like it should be one or the other.
I also gleaned from the program that there is supposed to be some significance to changes made at the end. Macbeth (Hugo Weaving) and Macduff don’t actually engage each other in combat – though maybe I missed something when I had my eyes closed during the strobe light scene. I liked the strobe-lit swordplay in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry IV (well, I also had my eyes closed, but I appreciated the effect). However, here it doesn’t really work, because there have been no previous intimations that the action is actually taking place in a nightclub.
I don’t really know what it’s supposed to signify. Macbeth’s fantasy of himself as a super-masculine warrior? This is the only possible connection I could see to the next scene, in which Macbeth lies on the ground and allows Macduff to kill him. Despite its randomness, this is really awesomely staged and acted, and makes up for the annoying tendencies earlier in the scene. The short remainder of the play focuses on the ascension of Malcolm. Life goes on.
What’s surprisingly not emphasised is Lady Macbeth (Melita Jurisic). I didn’t really like this take on her – she seemed sort of like an old cat lady from the start. I’ve an inkling we can’t entirely blame Jurisic, though, as the costuming and unkempt hair/make-up* so strongly reinforced this odd character interpretation that the only thing odder would have been if Jurisic had gone against it. Case in point: The scene where she and Macbeth meet up and try to be all lovey-dovey is a bit painful to watch.
In general Mrs Macbeth (it made me think of that – Mrs Macbeth) is given much less prominence than is usual, in our culture and our stagings. The ‘Out damned spot’ scene becomes almost an intrusion on Macbeth’s agony. There is no doctor to medicalise Lady Macbeth’s anguish; even the audience is distracted enough to not quite appreciate it. The desensitisation and normalisation of her anguish harks back to the earlier focus on Scotland’s state of political and social disorder – and trauma.
But the other reason it’s a tad hard to focus at this point is that Hugo Weaving as Macbeth is so amazing. His Macbeth gradually takes on the Lady’s hysteria in a way that’s much more compelling to watch; indeed, almost to the point that you want to look away. Rather than an accumulation of mental anguish, each horror – Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth’s death – strikes him anew such that there’s no recourse even to retrospection, only a visceral response to the latest happening.
The news of Lady Macbeth’s death is particularly beautifully done, with confetti, lighted to look silver, forming in a curtain. In a long moment of silence, we hear it falling. This rain or snow goes on until the end, though it reaches its epitome in the silent scene and after that the visual effect alone becomes a slightly irritating scrim.
On a characterisation note, I really love Kate Box as Macduff and John Gaden as “Duncan/Old Man/Young Macduff/Apparition”. Box is convincing and emotionally engaging, and seems more a touch more realist (if that term can have any application to Shakespeare), especially in the scenes in the dress circle. As his credit in the program suggests, John Gaden plays a range of roles, all brilliantly. I appreciate the startling and moving take on Young Macduff as a sweet old man who mistakes his daughter(-in-law?) for his mother, while Lady Macduff (Paula Arundell) comforts him as a child. Arundell also brings a nice dynamic to the role of Banquo – whom I’m reminded must be somewhat outdoorsy and energetic, taking off for a ride with his son before dinner.
I started off my review talking about the weird and awesome staging of this play, but I’m glad to see it’s taken off in lots of other directions. The brilliant acting and interesting directions (however inconsistent in their execution) are what make this production much more than a cool new physical perspective on a big stage. Yet the development of the spatial dimension allows the unique space to be used in a focussed way, without gimmickry or the fear of it intruding upon the production.
Finally, someone else pointed out that there isn’t much of a conceptual reversal happening. Despite our physical position, the audience is still the audience, passive and separate from the action. I agreed at the start. And then: curtain – with everyone inside!
The cavernous auditorium is transformed into a most intimate space, dominated by a crowded crowd. Macbeth is trapped alone, yet not alone, in a narrow band between the audience and the wall of curtain. At this one moment, sitting on a wooden chair at the foot of the stands, Macbeth seems aware of the crowd who sit in judgement. The guy seated next to me nudges me out of the way so he can get a better look at the tyrant (I, in turn, have blocked his view by leaning forward in fascination). Are we his countrymen, then, a sort of jury? The 99 per cent?
As you can guess, I loved the experience of this Macbeth despite its odd lapses in directorial focus. I’ve mentioned before, but it bears reinforcing in more emotive than analytical terms: Hugo Weaving’s acting is absolutely sublime. The staging is unparalleled. I could natter on about it for days but I’ll leave you with this: within the apparatus of the stage, space shifted around us – the auditorium backdrop, the hazy post-assassination landscape, the close little curtained room, each was created and dismantled with the simplest of technical changes.
And the seating that the other patrons were complaining about? I kind of liked it. Perhaps it’s just that I catch too many trains and crowded buses, but I’ve always found it sort of surreal that you can sit literally against someone else for an hour, travel for miles, and then disperse without ever seeing their face. How much more so when the journey is through a play as exquisite as this Macbeth?
*I also question the wisdom of hair design that largely obscures the actor’s face.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth is playing until 27 September. I believe the regular tickets are sold out now. There is info about other ticket options on STC’s Macbeth page (look in the grey side panel), or like their Facebook for updates. I highly recommend getting a ticket if you possibly can!