Review: Macbeth (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 21 – Sep 27, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Melita Jurisic, Robert Menzies, Hugo Weaving
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published Auditorium Magazine Peace Issue 2014)
In the process of art-making, it is often the spirit of experimentation that elevates a work to heights of significance and esteem. Major theatre companies around the world with greater access to funding and other resources do not always prioritise innovation in their repertoire, often choosing instead to deliver entertainment that their patrons would readily embrace. The decision to stage a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a prominent actor in the title role, exemplifies the kind of tension that exists where a show’s anticipated mass popularity and the expectations that come along with it, threatens the commitment to artistic risk, in the trepidation of alienating audiences or indeed, underestimating their ability to relate to unconventional interpretations.

Kip Williams’ direction of the piece reflects an awareness of the diversity in his audience’s tastes. Shakespeare is left untainted and the celebrity actor is given ample room to flex his dramatic muscles for his legions of fans, but the stage is thoroughly explored around those prerequisites. Williams gives the crowd what they have come for, but also offers up fresh concepts and unexpected flourishes that prevent the production from ever appearing unoriginal or unambitious. Williams’ vision does not rewrite the 400 year-old play, and neither does it add significantly to its themes and ideas, but he uses the text to explore the nature of the art form in all its physical and emotive possibilities. The audience’s early excitement is further amplified, when we discover upon stepping into the venue, that our tickets point to seats located on the stage itself, and we are positioned so that the auditorium come into full view and our more familiar chairs have become the backdrop. The meaning of this radical reversion is open and unexplained, but it seems the director wishes to keep us close to the action by placing us directly on stage with the performers.

The production begins as though we are observing a casual reading, with the only discernible element of set design being a simple table (that seems to find its way into every rehearsal space). The cast appears in nondescript clothing, looking more regular than average Joes on the streets of Sydney. None of the grandeur of fictitious kingdoms, or the formalities associated with Shakespeare are present. Disappointment in the production’s minimalism is soon dispelled when the first murder takes place, and a series of fantastical effects begins to unfold. Supernaturalism figures heavily in Shakespeare’s writing, and the depiction of a world that is half earth, half hell is a striking gesture from Williams’ directorial hand. His ghostly atmospherics are deftly created by production designer Alice Babidge’s ingenuity, together with the adventurous efforts of lighting designer Nick Schlieper and the insidious talents of Max Lyandvert, composer and sound designer. It comes as no surprise that Sydney Theatre Company delivers a technically proficient show, but the stage craft in their production of Macbeth, shows flair and intuition in addition to expertise.

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth is absolutely captivating, perhaps unsurprisingly so. The role is wildly imagined and Weaving’s impressive range is exposed dramatically. The actor’s control of voice and body is confident and skilled, and his thorough exploration of the text translates into a dynamic performance that keeps us delighted and entertained. Acting on this stage is professional and committed, but characters are distant. We watch their stories with fascination, but we are not always emotionally engaged. Performances are thoughtful and calculated, but they do not always resonate viscerally, and can sometimes lack an intuitive energy. Weaving’s work in the “dagger scene” is clear in its motivations, showing us the onset of the character’s descent into madness, but the impending consequences that befall him do not translate with enough power. We do not sense sufficiently the grave danger that awaits him, but when emotions of regret take hold later in the piece, Weaving’s mastery truly shines.

The other famed soliloquy, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, is similarly underwhelming. Melita Jurisic plays her role with an alluring extravagance, but the heightened lunacy at her final scene feels almost too predictable after presenting a Lady Macbeth who had already seemed quite deranged from the start. Nevertheless, Jurisic’s intensity adds a sensational energy of avant-gardism that gives the production a sophisticated modern edge. Her anti-naturalist style fits beautifully with the show’s paranormal quality, and the toughness that she injects into the role keeps us mesmerised. Paula Arundell crosses gender and ethnic boundaries to play a compelling Banquo. Arundell’s work has a natural authenticity that helps create a character that is consistently believable, and her considerable stage presence gives Banquo an effortless palpability. Her star quality is pronounced even at the scene of the feast, where she plays an apparition, wordless and with little movement. There is an appealing stillness that she delivers, which our eyes very readily gravitate towards.

Williams’ use of space is a greater achievement than his use of Shakespeare’s script. His determination and love for theatrical experimentation is exhilarating to witness, and while his concepts might have been inspired by Macbeth, they can appear quite divorced from the text itself. Furthermore, the story and its characters often feel subsumed by the grandness of his aspirations. The narrative is a majestic one and it resists abatement. We want to be swept away by its drama and tragedy, but our indulgence in all the spectacle takes precedence and our senses struggle to form a meaningful reconciliation between form and content. This is a strong production with artistic merit emerging from all aspects and faculties, and although it connects more with our senses that it does with our emotions, what we see and hear is utterly breathtaking.