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Macbeth – Sydney Theatre Company

One of the year's bold theatrical experiments falls short.
By Rima Sabina Aouf
August 03, 2014
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By Rima Sabina Aouf
August 03, 2014
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As we take our seats for the Sydney Theatre Company's enticingly reversed Macbeth — where the audience sits on stage and the actors perform in the stalls and dress circle usually filled by the audience — the anticipation is through the roof. We buzz about being part of one of the year's bold theatrical experiments, even while squeezing ourselves into a seating bank sized for primary schoolers. And then the play starts.

The air goes out of this Macbeth quite quickly, though it's sure to have its fans who can do with pure, minimal, academic Shakespeare. The first 45 minutes take place at what looks like the script reading table, with actors in everyday, 'civilian' attire. A few cleverly used props and costume elements configure them into different scenes: the witches gurgle into shape after Robert Menzies, Kate Box and Ivan Donato dunk their heads in water; with poncho to catch the spewing gore, a wounded captain (Melita Jurisic) brings news from the front and praise for Macbeth (Hugo Weaving) to King Duncan (John Gaden).

This in itself is fine, but without characterisation through costume or speech, it makes for a very disengaging start, even for those familiar with the plot. Everyone's iambs gush out like waterfalls, and tonal variation is slight. The feeling throughout is that everything is rushed, with the only discernible reason being to get us out of this makeshift seating before we develop back issues. Speed does not guarantee pace.

Of course, when Weaving speaks, it strikes awe. His voice is like a mountain rumbling to life to let the villagers know it is in fact a volcano and they should run for their lives. Shakespeare's words are clear and sonorous coming from him; however, it's hard to see more in this Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Jurisic) than broad archetypes of people seduced and spoiled by power. It's strange because in the last piece of Shakespeare presented by director Kip Williams, Romeo and Juliet, character was the strongest suit. Why he would deny us the luxury of characterisation now is not clear, and if there is new meaning or a particular take to be found in this Macbeth, it's very hidden.

When the action does move beyond the table, Williams and his team of design heavyweights (Alice Babidge on set, Nick Schlieper on lights and Max Lyandvert on sound) create a few memorable sights. A chase to the death over the staggered seats is thrilling, and the visitation by Banquo's ghost over dinner is beautiful and dripping with tension. There is the most spectacular glitter drop — like rain, snow and falling comets all rolled into one.

It feels like Williams' ethos with this production is restraint, as though to avoid it being labelled a gimmick. I don't know that it's the right choice. Swapping the seating plan of a proscenium theatre is once-in-a-lifetime stuff, and it would have been excellent to see it realised to every inch of its creative possibility. Naturally, given the proposition and the casting, this show is sold out, with your only chance now being to ring up on Tuesday mornings in the hopes of getting the few Suncorp Twenties tickets. But it's a shame that a work set to reach such a broad audience is one with stilted imagination and limited appeal.

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