Macbeth

Ben Nielsen

Kip Williams' vision transcends professional inexperience, the gimmick of the performance venue and Hugo Weaving’s star power.
Macbeth

Melita Jurisic and Hugo Weaving. Image by Brett Boardman. 

The audience enters the stage, taking their seats where the actors would usually deliver their performance. The space is bare but for a trestle and seven mismatched chairs, beyond which lies the dimly lit auditorium. It is a consuming expanse of nothingness, from which looms Birnam Wood, Dunsinane Castle or perhaps the very depths of Macbeth’s own consciousness. 

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is allegedly based on Holinshed’s Chronicles, as well as the real-life figure who became king of Scotland after the bloody overthrow of Duncan. Despite its relative historical accuracy, the tumult of Shakespeare’s tale is unfathomable and almost farcical. Yet, it still manages to reflect the political and power struggles of the current day. Perhaps more pertinent though, is its ability to trigger discourse about personal character and the relationship between self, others and one’s environment.

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While it is difficult to ignore the cavernous auditorium – an unorthodox arrangement that is as much a draw card as Hugo Weaving – it is not really the focus of the production. Instead, the text is brought to the forefront, without intrusion from set, costume or lighting. Obviously these elements are integral to the staging, but there is a clarity to director Kip Williams’ approach. Pared back and rather Brechtian, his vision is especially refreshing amid the trend to embellish and modernise classic texts. As a result, Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy really only exists through the words of the actors.

If only the integrity of each performance could withstand this ideal, but instead, the actors show inconsistencies in strength, conviction and delivery of the text. Among the hotchpotch cast, John Gaden as Duncan et al and Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth are particularly notable. Even Kate Box utilises her comparatively minimal role. But, try as they might to match him, Hugo Weaving’s talent is simply insurmountable. Perhaps if he were removed from the marquee, the remaining cast might have more easily met the audience’s expectations.

In the title role, Weaving provides a compelling and dynamic performance. His energy fills the surrounding void, and every motion is committed with captivating intent – from the careful punctuation of lines to the subtlest hand gesture. It is difficult to truly identify who or what Macbeth is, and so the complexity of his character becomes as chilling as the gruesome deeds he commits. To portray this, Weaving casts aside his own inhibitions in an explosive and confronting display of personality and emotion. The hysteria that he so often employs becomes overdone though, especially when Melita Jurisic achieves the same intensity with a surprising quietness.

As Macbeth slowly unravels, the production becomes increasingly complex. The auditorium’s potential as a performance space is finally realised, the visual aesthetic becomes more intricate, and sound and light is better integrated.

There are moments of complete beauty – the wall of fog, the downpour of opalescent confetti, the witches’ earthy rites, Max Lyandvert’s ethereal compositions. There are also an equal number of clumsy moments. The intention behind the actor’s initial entrance and Macbeth’s final exit is unclear; several scenes seem far too mechanical (Banquo’s death and Macbeth’s demise); and the overt visual imagery (a bouquet of red and white flowers and similar costuming choices) sometimes seems crude. Perhaps most obvious, though, is the discomfort of the seating arrangement which leaves the audience wriggling for most of the second half.

Like Macbeth himself, the production possesses both strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately though, every element contributes to Williams’ undeniably clever staging. It is a relief that he so capably controls this extraordinary vehicle – his vision transcending professional inexperience, the gimmick of the performance venue and Weaving’s star power.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre Company
Directed by Kip Williams
Design Alice Babidge
Lighting Design Nick Schlieper
Composer and Sound Design Max Lyandvert
Performed by Hugo Weaving, Melita Jurisic, Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Robert Menzies

Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay
www.sydneytheatre.com.au
21 July – 27 September

About the author

Ben Nielsen is a Sydney-based writer and broadcaster. He regularly contributes to Limelight magazine and ArtsHub, and has also written for News Corp Adelaide and SALife Publications. Follow @benjnielsen