Saturday, May 19, 2012

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare directed by Peter Evans.  Canberra Theatre Centre: The Playhouse May 18-June 2, 2012 (Melbourne Arts Centre: Playhouse June 7-23)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 18

In keeping with Macbeth’s early 17th Century origins, Peter Evans’ production is full of ‘conceit’.  It makes the play intellectually interesting, opening up ideas about the psychology of a developing dictator, rather than presenting the more usual simplistic murder story.  For the first time in my experience, we see Macbeth as a character in keeping with the same author’s Hamlet.

Peter Evans’ conceit is not cleverness for its own sake, though not all of his ideas work.  I assume, too, that my comments also go to Kate Mulvaney, dramaturg for this production, as well as for Evans’ 2011 production of Julius Caesar

Where style and habitual conventions or devices take over from internally felt images and actions, the drama loses its impact.  In this production, part of the conceit is about the illusion of theatre.

As in his Caesar, Evans wanted to make clear when an actor is entering the performing space, and leaving it.  His habit is to have actors briefly visibly freeze as they cross the line of demarcation.  In Macbeth this is done only occasionally, in favour of more often having actors freeze in situ at the completion of a scene, then rise and walk purposefully, perhaps as if partially still in character, to the rear, and exit left or right in half light.

I was fortunate to see the play in the company of an old friend, always willing to tell me what he thought and felt, but not a literary or theatre ‘buff’.  For him, these entrance and exit devices broke the illusion, were confusing, and seemed pointless.  I could see the point – that what we are seeing is a fiction, a work of art – but I understood my friend’s reaction.  He saw artifice.

The character of the Witch (Lizzie Schebesta) was interesting to me as a link between artifice and art.  Her black line dividing her physical form, and her appearance in roles like the Boy, became intriguing and gradually established that witchcraft was reality in the life and times of Macbeth.  The highlight of this device for me was at Banquo’s banquet, where the ghost disappeared as he sat on the Witch’s knee, then rose horribly to confront Macbeth.  Here was the degree of melding of intellectual conceit with emotional effect that I found myself looking for in this production.

The cutting, trimming and therefore shaping of the play to focus on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth gave Dan Spielman and Kate Mulvaney every opportunity for bravura performances, and they both thoroughly fulfilled my expectations. 

The reprise of Lady Macbeth’s hiccups in her final desperate scene must have been one of the hardest things to act, but it worked.  Here was the signal to remind us of her deeply felt insecurity, in fact panic, which had driven her sexually and through the horrors of murder.  This was an extraordinary performance by Mulvaney.

And for me the later part of the play – the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, the turnaround of Macduff’s decision to confront Macbeth, and the final swordfight – has previously seemed to be almost gratuitous.  The play really ends when Lady Macbeth dies. 

But here, Ivan Donato used the deliberately styled movement which characterised all the characters in this production very effectively to make us believe in the horrifying mistaken judgement he had made in leaving his castle at the mercy of the now completely uncontrollable Macbeth.  And, though earlier I had found Macbeth’s twisted body shapes too artificial, in these last scenes Spielman showed us how his wife and lover’s failure to hold things together, for him as much as for herself, left him grasping at every imaginable straw, unable to stop the inevitable.  It was quite extraordinary to feel almost sorry for this murderous dictator when he finally received his just deserts.  It reminded me of the obvious modern case – Muamar Gaddafi – murdered in the street without the trial which might have revealed something of his belief in witchcraft.

If not Bell Shakespeare’s greatest presentation of the Bard’s consummate art (I preferred Much Ado About Nothing for example), this Macbeth is a strong contender.