Agamemnon. Morgana. Macbeth. Directed by Jethro Compton. Produced by Jethro Compton in association with The Centre For International Theatre and Joanne Hartstone Ltd. Marlborough Street. Adelaide.
Reviewer: Peter Wilkins
With its Best Theatre Award under the arm, Jethro Compton’s company dismantles the World War 1 trench, constructed in a city warehouse and returns to England with its highly acclaimed The Bunker Trilogy. I have already written about Agamemnon, the first in the trilogy, but it would be remiss of me not to place this stunning piece of work in the context of the entire trilogy. Compton and his team have devised an ingenious theatrical event, most timely because of the occasion of the centenary of the commencement of the First World War.
Each work, inspired by Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the Arthurian legend and Shakespeare’s Macbeth concerns itself with war and its impact on those who wage war for greed, power, national security or in hatred. Agamemnon examines the effect of war on those who wage it, those who serve it and those who are left behind to cope with its consequences. Human need turns to human requital for perceived wrongs. In Morgana, war’s inevitable impact on relationships exposes courage, cowardice, command and the nature of human behaviour under the stress of war.
Unlike Agamemnon and Morgana which adapt the myth to give it resonance in the circumstance of the Great War, Compton decides to stage Shakespeare’s actual text in the bunker. Macbeth is after all a noble and courageous soldier, condemned by his fatal flaw to a vengeful fate. Perhaps this realises the possible imperfection of any deviance from the original perfection. Perhaps it is because Shakespeare’s tale of ambition and destruction would only suffer by comparison.
Whatever the motive, the decision to stage Shakespeare’s play lends a rather perplexing note in the context of the entire trilogy. This in no way denigrates the talents of Compton’s team of three male actors and the one female, all of whom perform in more than one of the trilogy and some in all three. The acting is exemplary and immediate, powerful in its proximity and riveting in its intensity. As audience, our involvement is inescapable as the actors breathe life into their characters within a couple of metres from us, and at times almost upon us as they sweep past the front benches in a moment of high drama.
The crowded setting is perfect for a sense of absolute inclusion and for the creation of suspense in Agamemnon, tension-relieving humour, counterpoised by moments of school day intimidation in Morgana and violent ambition in Macbeth. The Bunker Trilogy is a cleverly constructed conceit that leaves an audience in no doubt as to the intention to illuminate war in its many guises. In Agamemnon, the bunker also acts as the English home of the soldier who has enlisted and deserted his wife to serve his country as well as the trenches that lead off stage to No Man’s Land. In Morgana, the bunker also serves as Morgana’s village.
The names of the characters leave us in no doubt of their references. Arthur (Hayden Wood) is the commanding officer. Lancelot (Sam Donnelly) serves as lieutenant and Gawain (James Marlowe) is the inexperienced private, who seek the Holy Grail of love and is eventually sacrificed on the brutal field of battle. The audience is at first beguiled as they are invited to join in Christmas carols and are entertained by vaudeville routines and jokes that recall the schooldays of the three schoolboy friends. Gradually the play turns into a baiting game of bullying as Lance taunts Gawain while Art can feel himself losing his grip when Lance reveals his love for Art’s wife Gwendoline.
The references to the Arthurian legend are glaringly obvious and are enriched by a knowledge of the source, while still elucidating the themes within an integral theatrical experience.
War in all its facets is cleverly interwoven throughout the trilogy, clearly demonstrating its effect on individual soldiers and their responses, on the relationship between soldiers in the face of battle and death and on those who remain behind, and the women in particular.
Clytemnestra (Bebe Sanders) enacts an extreme vengeance to punish her husband for his indiscretions. Leaving her for the battlefield and having an affair with a Belgian prostitute. Hardly just cause for murder, but these are extraordinary times and people are compelled to commit extraordinary acts. Our willing suspension of disbelief is justified in the knowledge that war changes people.
Morgana (Bebe Sanders) weaves her spell and leads Gawain to his death. Lady Macbeth too wields her power over her soldier husband and yet is drawn inextricably into his web and ultimately his fate. Compton’s view of war offers no redemption and we are struck by its inane futility and damaging consequence.
In The Bunker Trilogy’s Macbeth, there is no surprise. There is some juxtapositioning of text and action with Macbeth’s defiant command to “Hang out our banners on the outward walls” commencing the performance, and concluding his terrible deeds in the inevitable cycle of Fate’s journey. There are imaginative touches, having the witches portrayed as soldiers in gas masks and Siward appearing in a gas mask as a prophet of doom to announce the arrival of Birnam Wood.
To audiences less familiar with the text, The Bunker Trilogy version of Shakespeare’s tragedy may be gripping and powerful, and expressive of the destructive force of “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” Perhaps any attempt to adapt Macbeth to an imagined story as Compton has done with Agamemnon and Morgana would simply have trivialized the plot and themes of the Scottish play.
However, as I said, there is no denying the ingenuity of the concept, the outstanding acting, the powerful impact of the bunker setting and the strong production values that contribute to a piece of theatre that is absorbing, illuminating, moving and memorable long after one leaves the theatre.