Sound and Fury: STC's Macbeth

You don’t need an introduction to Macbeth, the play or the character. It is studied (almost to death) at school, he is cited as one of tragedy’s key tyrants, and the play’s unspooling trajectory is more of a bee-line into a waking nightmare than any kind of vague saunter downwards towards hell. Played out against the vast backdrop of the (now-empty) Sydney Theatre, Kip Williams’ production emphasises the poetry and creates many arresting images in the moody darkness. And in many ways, it is one of the most human Macbeth’s I’ve seen, both in performance and in impact.

Kip Williams, director of last year’s Romeo and Juliet also for Sydney Theatre Company, knows how to create bold and moving theatre, as both productions show. Set upon Alice Babidge’s sparse (almost unpresent) set, the Sydney Theatre stage extends five rows into the auditorium, and sees the audience sitting on the stage. It stems from a conversation Williams shared with Andrew Upton whilst rehearsing STC’s The White Guard in 2011, and here we are three years later. A long table stands on the cusp of the stage and auditorium, set with a few simple props – a crown, a towel, a kingly robe, a dagger, a mug; as the play begins, the actors file on and conjour a world in front of us. It’s immediate, raw and simple, but this quiet and bare-bones opening lacks the impact we perhaps need to catapult us into the world of this “dread butcher and his fiend-like queen.” [V.7.114] That said, Williams’ gender-blind witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Robert Menzies) are effective in creating an unsettling atmosphere where things are not always as they seem. Dunking their faces in a tub of water, there is a gentle urgency to the scene, and we soon meet the bloodied captain (Melita Jurisic) who speaks with a deep hoarse whisper in-between gulps from a mug of rich red blood, which pours out of her mouth and down her chin to chilling effect. As soon as Hugo Weaving ‘enters’ as Macbeth, his voice rich and warm, gruff yet melodious, a certain stillness washes over the audience and you know there is magic at work here, if only it would find its feet.
After a half-hour or so in which much of Act One passes with barely a fluctuation in pacing, we come to Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me,” [II.1.40], and Williams’ production comes into its own. Caught in a downlight, Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth holds a dagger aloft, her hand reaching heavenward; downstage, barely a breath from the audience, Weaving reaches out in front of our faces for the ghostly dagger. The two of them create a moment where each movement is mirrored, echoed in the other, until Macbeth takes the dagger from his wife’s hand and goes to do the bloody deed. The ensemble, seated around the table where John Gaden’s King Duncan lies under his robe, pound their fists on the table, softly at first, then louder, until as the deed is done – another mugful of rich red blood – a furious crescendo fills the theatre. As Lady Macbeth exits with the daggers to finish the deed, the stage is pumped full of smoke, and lit with an eerie fiery glow; the glow of rough nights of “dire combustion and confused events.” [II.3.62] Robert Menzies’ Porter, dressed perhaps like a fisherman in raincoat, beanie, and voice like sandpaper, brings a fierce dignity to an all-too-often comic role and we see him not so much as a clown but as a harbinger of what is to come. The discovery of Duncan’s body is played amongst the thick smoke, lit from the side by bolts of fiery light until, following Malcolm’s exit for England, the stage is cleared in a crescendo of fans and the aural equivalent of a freight train roaring through a tunnel; regicide has been committed, they are in too deep, there is no going back.
The power of Williams’ production lies in the fact he is not afraid to create haunting images and let the text speak for itself, and create the fullness of the picture. Notwithstanding, some moments are lost in the vastness of the Sydney Theatre – key moments, like Macduff (Kate Box) receiving the news of his household, are played high on the front row of the circle, even if it is remarkably sobering and moving; Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” [V.1.36] sleepwalking-scene is lost amongst a rain-like shower of Benedict Andrews-style confetti, even if it does set up the following scene and the climactic battle. Banquo’s murder is played, somewhat awkwardly, through the empty auditorium, rows of seats like serried ranks of tombstones, stone teeth jutting out of the earth; the maw of hell itself, which Macbeth has just stepped into, dragging everyone after him.
While Williams appears to have borrowed an aesthetic from Messers Stone and Andrews at times, he instead imbues it with heart and poetry, a moving theatrical grace, and each moment exists within this production’s world with a robust theatrical imagination and simplicity of stagecraft. The feast and Banquo’s ghost is ghoulish but downplayed, emphasising the mental torment rather than the visceral gutwrenching horror; we get that in the words regardless. The witches’ apparitions, however, are masterstrokes of simplicity – using a bowl of thick white goo, flour, a cake’s icing, red wine and bouquets of flowers, Williams creates a horrific image of prophecy that leaves Macbeth howling in the claustrophobic darkness at the audience’s feet. The aforementioned rain-shower of miniscule clear plastic fragments doubles both as Birnam Wood “coming to high Dunsinane” and a symbolic rain which washes away Macbeth’s foreboding, guilt and sure-footed grounding in this world, leaving him naked, alone, and devoid of any friend; he is every inch the “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” [V.5.24-6] Caught in the beam of a strobing light in a dark inky void, Macbeth’s final battle is a series of images, a man fighting his demons, fighting the world. Macduff enters, Macbeth slips and falls, wearied; Macduff extends his hand and wipes it over Macbeth’s face, a thick blood-red smear on the butcher’s face. Out, out brief candle.
Alice Babidge’s design is theatre at its simplest, most pure form, allowing the words to speak volumes, and using only the most necessary props required to tell the story. Apart form a lavish banquet feast, hers is an empty stage (recalling Peter Brook’s famous volume) where magic and poetry happens, in flashes of inspired stagecraft and inspiration. Williams and Babidge are not afraid to use the rich red stage blood, and there are many harrowing deaths, not least Macduff’s child as performed by John Gaden. Nick Schlieper’s lighting is bold and striking, but never outweighs the poetry of the moment but rather enriches and amplifies it. Max Lyandvert’s score is barely discernible, but his sound design, a series of theatre-shaking rumbles and sonic rushes, is suitably disquieting and unnerving, making sure this is a Macbeth that does not play by the rules.
Williams’ cast are all strong within their means, but there is a lack of cohesion or unity amongst them. Kate Box and Paula Arundell as various lords and ladies, not least Macduff and Banquo respectively, brought a quiet dignity to their roles; Box ensured that Macduff’s reaction held the emotional truth but was not overplayed, and that Macduff’s slaying final action of slaying the butchering-king was of someone who was saying, appropriately, ‘Hold. Enough,’ snuffing out the brief tyrannical candle that was Macbeth. Arundell played not the man of Banquo but the character, and brought a gentleness to her early scenes, and an air of disappointment and dissatisfaction with Macbeth’s actions as Banquo’s Ghost, going not for ghoulishness but again, the emotional truth of the moment. John Gaden, regardless of production or role, makes the text sing, and his various roles here were no exception. His Duncan was stern but generous, while his turns as various children, both corporeal and mercurial, were hauntingly honest. Robert Menzies’ Porter was dignified rather than comic, while his Witch was suitably unsettling, especially in the opening moments. Eden Falk, while perhaps underused as Fleance, imbued his Macolm with an air that was less divine god-sent heir apparent than unassuming royal son, dressed frequently in white, and who at the end is dressed before our eyes in cod-Elizabethan finery, complete with ruff, hose, doublet and slippers. Ivan Donato seems to play every shadowy character and murderer in the play, and his roles perhaps seem undifferentiated, but that could be a performance thing more than a costume or directorial choice. The only relatively ineffective link in the production is Melita Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth. While her Bloody Captain is gruff and hoarse, her Lady M, is shrill and loses many of her key moments in quiet whispers and mutterings; her final scene is delivered in a gibbering kind of text-book ‘mad’ way. There is no real emotional or physical connection between her and Macbeth, no real sense of power in her physicality or performance, no sense of collusion in having done the deed together as much as apart.
Hugo Weaving’s Macbeth, meanwhile, carves up the stage and delivers a menacing but tender portrait of Shakespeare’s popular tyrant. While he seems on occasion to rant, his voice is so captivating and sonorous, so rich and warm that from the first “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” [I.3.39] you are hooked, line and sinker, caught in his net, dragged down with him into the very jaws of hell itself, and what a ride it is. You cannot take your eyes off him, as he strides about the stage in his blue jeans and shirt, delivering retribution and bloody execution on all and sundry. Weaving’s Macbeth is also the most affecting Macbeth I’ve seen; you actually empathise – and sympathise – with Macbeth the man, caught in his own (waking) dream as he is. His banquet scene is harrowing, so too is his seeing the witches’ apparitions, and he howls, sniffs, gnashes his teeth, trembles and tries to hide as best he can but to no avail – the horrors he has committed are as much in front of him as they are inside his head, and they weigh as heavily on us as they do him. By the time he fights Macduff at the climax, swinging his great broadsword around in the flashes of the strobe, we – like him – are exhausted, have been through the wringer with him; unlike Macbeth, though we may have been to hell, we are allowed to come back from its depths and leave the theatre at the end.
Kip Williams’ Macbeth is “bloody, bold and resolute,” [IV.1.85], and seeks the poetry in the darkness of Shakespeare’s equivocating tragedy. Although it takes a while to find its stride, once there it rages downwards, helter-skelter, on its blistering spiral trajectory, tearing at our imaginations, drawing us into his nightmarish world. While certainly strong, it seems to be more the journey of one man as opposed to that of the “dread butcher and his fiend-like queen.” Macbeth might be the story of a tyrant, but it’s also about the psychological effect of his actions on a man, a marriage, a community, a country, and we don’t quite get that in Williams’ production.

Theatre playlist: 42. Red Right Hand, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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