Sunday, April 16, 2023

Macbeth - Bell Shakespeare


Image: Pierre Toussant

Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, April 14 – 22, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night, April 15

I wish I had been stage manager for Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth last night.  After the cast was still receiving such continuing enthusiastic applause for their second curtain call appearance, I would have, in all modesty, have kept the stage lights up and sent them out again for what I am sure would have become a standing ovation – richly deserved.

Originality of direction by Peter Evans and especially by Nigel Poulton as Movement, Fight and Intimacy Director gave all the actors the opportunity to extend themselves beyond expectations.  Here was a story of a relationship between a man and a woman, each with such delusions of grandeur and such degree of intensity that disaster could be the only result – for themselves and for the whole nation.

Jessica Tovey and Hazem Shammas bring out, with amazing depth of characterisation, all our fears of autocratic rule, which we see being played out in many countries today, not least in Russia.  William Shakespeare lived in such times, writing his Scottish play soon after the death of Elizabeth I and the (fortunately peaceful) takeover of England by James VI of Scotland in 1603.  He may have left us the King James Bible, but Brexit shows his political legacy may not last much longer.

What I loved about this Macbeth was the return to the principle of The Empty Space (Peter Brook).  There was no need to move realistic-looking sets of castle interiors as the play travels to and from Inverness to Dunsinane.  There was no need even for the very successful Sydney Theatre Company use of live video.  In a set simply surrounded by full length drapes, and Max Lyandvert’s sung music and sound, and dressed in Anna Tregloan’s costumes invoking the period between World Wars I and II, the cast were choreographed in movement and still positions, dance-like, to create images to reinforce the mood of the moment; beginning, of course, with the three witches who may or may not be figments of Macbeth’s imagination; and wonderfully supported by Damien Cooper’s lighting in mysterious mist and whole fog dropping down out of what could only be a Scottish gloomy sky.

This is the best of truly exciting theatre, topped by Hazem Shammas’ exquisite detail in physical action, facial expression and voice as Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness” turns into the horror of the murder of Macduff’s wife and children and his own death at the hands of a man “not of woman born”.

All this while, so carefully directed with what I’m sure must have been concentrated input from Abbie-lee Lewis and James Evans as Associate Director and Dramaturg, Shakespeare’s language in all its originality and poetry is spoken so well, with absolute clarity and force.  It was a joy to listen to, even while realising the perfidy, conspiracy and deliberate misinformation being perpetrated.

Here in Canberra the show runs until April 22 after selling out at the Opera House in Sydney through March.  If you can’t get in here, it will be worth flying to Melbourne Arts Centre for the run there from April 27 to May 14 (despite the carbon dioxide fog which smothers the stage and at least up to Row D, where I was lucky to be seated, in the final scene).  

Hazem Shammas and Jessica Tovey
as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Bell Shakespeare 2023
Photo: Brett Boardman