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May 19, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Macbeth, the Australian Shakespeare Company

Published May 2011 by Arts Hub

What do you do when your rise to power is threatened? For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the only logical course of action is to kill, with some bloody and dramatic consequences. The Australian Shakespeare Company (ASC) gave the Scottish play a red-hot go, but ultimately undermined the Bard’s storytelling with sometimes-hammy acting and an over-emphasis on the seductive trap of power.

Anyone who recognises the play’s famous ‘unsex me now’ quote is probably familiar with this cautionary tale of wayward ambition and human fragility. After returning victorious from battle, Macbeth and ally Banquo receive prophesies that illuminate their promising and power-filled futures. But once Macbeth is convinced by his wife that he must forsake compassion and commit murder in the pursuit of power, things start to go seriously pear-shaped.

Shakespeare’s ultimate ‘bad luck’ play (performed in this instance on Friday the 13th, of all days) explored a new direction thanks to the ASC’s variation on the audience/stage dynamic. In this telling, multiple stages with permanent backdrops required the audience and actors to move around, allowing every audience member a chance to grab a prime viewing position. This kind of setup is a novel idea for a short play, perhaps, but for a three-hour performance it probably wasn’t the most logical approach. While multiple stages allowed for a much greater latitude in terms of the complexity of the sets themselves, there are several good reasons why plays do not often take place in an enormous shed, with limited heating and a tinny roof that roars with sound at the slightest drop of rain. On this particularly wintry night, warm clothing and excellent hearing was of paramount importance for audience members.

In terms of casting, the witches (Carla Kissane, Chloe Connolly and Belinda Misevski) were particularly boldly and fearsome, and clearly had a ball playing ghoulish and boil-covered beasts of magic. Brendan O’Connor as Macduff brought a grounded performance as the wise and vengeful foe of Macbeth; O’Connor stuck with a sensible and mostly understated portrayal of a man torn apart by conflicting loyalties. Ross Williams, in his minor role as a drunk buffoon, stole the spotlight with his slurring and comical scene.

While the costume design was suitably warlike and almost Neanderthal in its manliness, the outfits sometimes detracted from the menacing atmosphere the play encourages. Almost all the men were bare-chested, for instance, and seemed to be wearing leather pants lined with fur pelts; if anything, it made them look a little ridiculous when discussing battle tactics and the consequences of amoral bloodletting. Banquo (Hugh Sexton) and Malcolm (Jamieson Caldwell) were two (rather fortunate) victims of this by-product of costume design; when the audience is navel-gazing at a waxed six-pack during a soliloquy, it makes it hard to believe you’re staring at a fearsome warrior or the future King of Scotland.

The relationship, too, between Macbeth and his wife had a tendency to come undone by performances which seized upon the dramatics, rather than letting Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves. The overly-eager scenes between Macbeth  (Doru Surcel) and his Lady (Terri Brabon) were intensely sexualised, inciting more giggles than gasps from the crowd at key moments and detracting from the complex implosion of a once-passionate relationship.

The ASC has done well in trying to reinvigorate one of Shakespeare’s classics with earnest attempts at stage design, costumes and renewing the theatricality of the stage. In modern times, Macbeth is one of few plays that speaks more forcefully to its audience than ever. It’s a pity, then, that various elements of the performance restricted its ability to communicate the dread of being all-consumed by a lust for power.


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