Review: Macbeth, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

Patricia Maunder

A raw, engaging experience, and perhaps a breath of fresh air for jaded theatre types.
Review: Macbeth, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

Alison Whyte, Blake Aaron, Claire Duncan, Nathaniel Dean, Anna Burgess, Elizabeth Brennan, Adam T. Perkins, Tony Rive in Macbeth. Photo by Nicole Cleary.

In suitably chilly conditions more like a summer’s evening in Glasgow than Melbourne, The Australian Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth unfolded before a backdrop of atmospherically lit trees. Invisible possums screeched battle cries, and the occasional bat flew silently overhead – though not, sadly, when Macbeth uttered ‘ere the bat hath flown his cloistered flight.’

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These are just some of the natural ingredients that make alfresco theatre both a challenge for cast and crew, and so delightfully different to the traditional indoor experience for audiences. With its conventional interpretation, uneven performances, and design that can’t hide its tight budget and need to endure the elements, this production won’t win any awards. For novice and occasional theatregoers, however, it’s a raw, engaging experience, and perhaps a breath of fresh air for jaded theatre types too.

The setting is a rough-and-ready Scotland in some murky pre-Shakespearian past, where dark, earthy shades of black and brown dominate. Karla Erenbots’ costumes of leather, fur, often crude fabrics and plenty of serious looking swords and daggers are a persuasive hybrid of 21st century streetwear and a scruffy imagining of ye olde Scottish moor. The set’s simple design is dominated by a low, hulking table that’s more often dramatic platform than a place to dine, and a single-storey tower whose roof is another occasional location of heightened drama.

Lighting is crucial to bringing this dark, practical set to life, from footlights to the wonderfully lurid effects of the witches’ Act IV vision. This whole scene is nicely done theatrical magic, from the props emerging out of a hulking industrial cauldron, to most of the cast, dressed as generations of kings, gliding in and out of the revolving tower. Paul Norton’s vaguely Gaelic music and Andrew Nielsen’s soundscape of clashing swords and rowdy revellers also add atmosphere throughout.

Alison Whyte and Nathaniel Dean in Macbeth. Photo by Nicole Cleary.

Nathaniel Dean, who was nominated for a Helpmann best actor award for his work in STC’s The Secret River in 2013, takes the title role. His performance was undermined by frequent flubbing of lines, especially in the first half – surprising given he had a good couple of weeks of performances behind him. After interval it was more fudging than flubbing, and a growing confidence in expressing his character’s transformation into an angry tyrant ultimately defeated in mind and body was supported by an athletic physicality.

Alison Whyte, a 2010 Helpmann Award winner for MTC’s Richard III, delivered the stand-out performance as Macbeth’s scheming wife. She conveyed the rhythm and nuance of Shakespeare’s text, thereby building a three-dimensional character whose ruthlessness gives way to mental disintegration.

The rest of the cast ranged from the bland expression of Kieran Clancy-Lowe’s Banquo, to the comic excess of Syd Brisbane as the porter (among other roles). Tony Rive (Lennox) and Dion Mills (Duncan) added some classic Shakespearean nobility, Kevin Hopkins delivered flashes of pathos and gravitas as Macduff, and Anna Burgess was a convincing Malcolm, her look and unexaggerated manner reminiscent of female warrior-queen Lagertha from History Channel drama Vikings.

Under the direction of Glenn Elston, the amplified cast moved about with a confident, uncomplicated flow, and several times the military characters stormed to and from the stage in a line through the audience, adding dramatic energy. The Macbeth-Macduff sword fight choreographed by Nigel Poulton became less and less believable as it dragged on, and entirely lost its momentum when the actors had to slink up to the tower roof for the death blow. It’s certainly not the worst stage fight I’ve seen, however.

Part of The Australian Shakespeare Company’s 30th anniversary season of theatre under the stars, this is far from the best or worst production of the Scottish play. It’s honest theatre, with its fair share of flaws and highlights that Mother Nature often has a hand in.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆

Macbeth 
The Australian Shakespeare Company
Macbeth: Nathaniel Dean
Lady Macbeth: Alison Whyte
Macduff: Kevin Hopkins
Malcolm: Anna Burgess
Banquo: Kieran Clancy-Lowe
Director: Glenn Elston
Musical director: Paul Norton
Choreographer: Sue-Ellen Shook

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne
21 December 2018 - 23 February 2019

About the author

Patricia Maunder is a Melbourne writer.