Saturday, August 16, 2014



Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company and UBS. Sydney Theatre Company Mainstage. July 21- September 27.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth.

Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth. Hugo Weaving as Macbeth

While watching director, Kip Williams’s highly original staging of Shakespeare’s prophetic warning of the tragic consequences of “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” I was reminded of Cassius’s words to Brutus in “Julius Caesar” : How many times shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er in states unknown and kingdoms yet unborn?”

Williams is obviously cognisant of how well-known is the dramatic tale of Macbeth’s fearful fall from grace; how familiar the text with its plethora of instantly identifiable soliloqies. His production unabashedly strives to jolt his audience into disconcerted attention, thrusting them from their complacent comfort zone and challenging them to sit in judgement of the unfolding tale. Narrow and largely uncomfortable tiered seating on the mainstage rises from the reduced performance space with the vast auditorium behind. To display his own inversion of his usual directrorial and storytelling practice, Williams also inverts the audience and his actors. Already, such brazen assault upon the Mainhouse convention demands an altered perspective on the action.

To take it even further, only eight actors play out the swelling scene, at first seated about a long table and allowing Shakespeare’s imagistic text to tell the bloody story of a brave and honourable soldier who, at his ambitious wife’s urging, murders his noble king, Duncan ,played with gracious gentility by John Gaden, and sets about a train of events that will inevitably lead to his terrible doom. Only Hugo Weaving, bestriding the narrow stage like a colossus, plays the solitary, titanic role of Macbeth, while the remaining seven performers assume witches, apparitions, soldiers and murderers and the principal characters of the tragedy.
 Eden Falk as Malcolm. John Gaden as Duncan
Williams’s idiosyncratic minimalism continues through designer, Alice Babidge’s random costuming from T shirts and jeans to ermine and fur to Eden Falk’s Malcolm in doublet and hose, pantaloon and ruff to draw us back to the Elizabethan stage. If nothing, Williams’s production is consistent in its inconsistency. It is to the credit of the cast and production team that Shakespeare’s irony and ambiguity, cloaked in the contradiction of antithesis drives the powerful narrative through the text. Voice and text coach, CHarmian Gradwell  has tutored her actors well. Only Paula Arundell’s Banquo speaks the speech trippingoverly on the tongue, thus diminishing Banquo’s soldierly stature. She rises more effectively to the occasion during the horrific slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son.

Williams restrains theatrical effect throughout the exposition, preferring minimalism and storytelling to excessive theatricality.  After Duncan’s assassination the full impact of the horrendous deed is heightened by Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Max Lyandvert’s soaring composition and sound. Dry ice shrouds the stage to draw an audience towards the “dunnest smoke of hell” following the heinous deed. Banquo’s fearful flight from fate into the knives of his murderers takes place in the auditorium as does the news of the slaughter of Macduff’s family. Strobe flashes across Macbeth’s swordfight and snow seems to cascade upon the battlefield as the tyrant is drawn towards his inevitable fate.

Throughout, Weaving’s Macbeth is a man possessed and obsessed. Melita Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth may act the catalyst, but Weaving’s noble hero corrupts at the prophesy of the witches and the sheer power of his performance gives full credence to his total usurping of the role of protagonist, allowing Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth to play the fragile strains of neurosis from the outset and cast her fateful trajectory towards the vale of insanity. Her twisted, tormented sleepwalking soliloquy reveals a more fragmented spirit as her feet turn upon a spot upon the floor. Here is utter degradation, lending plausibility to her impending death.  Hers is one of Shakepeare’s most challenging and elusive female roles and Jurisic makes it entirely her own, eliciting some sympathy for the woman whose loyalty and devotion sealed her irrevocable demise.

But it is Weaving’s Macbeth that towers above all expectation. His performance is riveting, charging inevitably towards utter degradation and defeat as he crawls in contorted agony to grasp the ankles of victorious Macduff, played with vocal authority and conviction by Kate Box. Williams’s decision to cast a mere eight actors may disturb conventional expectation, but it does create a strong ensemble, who serve Shakespeare’s simple plot with the storyteller’s art of engagement, mystery, suspense and resolution.
Eden Falk as Fleance. Paula Arundell as Banquo
Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth is a director’s playground, allowing Williams and his company to tell a familiar morality tale afresh. The universality of Shakespeare’s commentary on immoral ambition, fate and consequence gives licence to a contemporary staging of a story that will contain for all time the eternal nature of the human condition. This production tells it as it is, simply, truthfully and with powerful allegiance to Shakespeare’s mirror up to nature.

The production is not without controversy, but that is theatre’s function throughout the ages and this production is a full uninterrupted  two hours traffic upon the stage that seeks not to elicit empathy nor offer catharsis, but invites us all to witness and to judge the eternal battle between good and evil through one tragic hero’s fatal flaw.
Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth

All photographs by Brett Boardman