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Review: Macbeth at the Sydney Opera House

Review By Bradley Ward

It is a somewhat unenviable task to review a production of Macbeth. What can be said in a less than 1000-word article about this play that hasn’t been said with more eloquence in the hundreds of years that have proceeded the review? One must imagine that it is also an unenviable task to mount a production of Macbeth. What new approach to the text can one possibly take that will result in something that both feels fresh and does not jar with an educated audience’s expectations? Bell Shakespeare has once again contributed to the ongoing discourse surrounding this Jacobean text; this time though, it’s unclear how much they have to say.

The clearest point of praise for this production are its technical aspects. Anna Tregloan’s 1920s inspired costumes and décor are clean and stylish, submerging the audience in a nightmarish world of overwhelming green that looks ripped straight from the frames of an Ingmar Bergman film. The lighting, courtesy of Damien Cooper, highlights the set and characters in all the best ways, providing perfect shadowy hiding places for an always present ensemble and bolstering the supernatural tone that is so crucial. Combined, Tregloan and Cooper have ensured this production is visually stunning, eliciting numerous gasps or cries of excitement throughout. Add in Lyandvert’s sublime yet subtle sound design, and this show easily ranks among the most technically proficient that this reviewer has seen in some time.

It is with some disappointment then that I must ask: to what end? Every aspect of the mise-en-scene, from the details on the costumes to the placement of the ensemble, has been enacted with such precision that it is clear there is some greater creative vision at play; I only wish I could tell you what it was. The evoking of a particular era is intentional – it is highlighted in the program numerous times – and yet it isn’t justified by the action on stage. It comes across more as an aesthetic layer than bold narrative approach of socio-political commentary. At times the performances and mis-en-scene seem to coalesce into something complete, with the show seemingly aping an old-fashioned murder mystery, or war film, or vaudeville routine. This is only ever for a short time though, and then it moves on, setting the audience adrift once more.

This confusion carries over into the performances. Some characters deliver inspirational speeches with distance and hesitancy, while others deliver exposition with exaggerated movements and exclamations. Thankfully, with most of the cast playing multiple roles, almost everyone gets a moment of brilliance. While the three witches are, at times, lacklustre, their actresses – Rebecca Attanasio, Isabel Burton, and Eleni Cassimatis – each shine in their other roles, bringing humanity to crucial characters that are too often overlooked. James Lugton, underused in the second half as Seyton, brought gravitas and humour to his pre-intermission roles of Duncan and the comedic Porter. Special praise to Julia Billington, who portrays the doomed Banquo with complexity, bringing a sincerity and warmth to the role that serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the tortured Macbeth.

Ultimately, any production of Macbeth lives or dies on the performances of its central duo, the violently ambitious Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Hazem Shammas and Jessica Tovey have undeniably put their stamps on these roles, presenting characterisations that are wholly unlike anything this reviewer has seen before. They are, in a word, funny. Shammas and Tovey have mined the text for moments of incongruity, bringing to the surface a sense of panic and petulance that clashes with the darkness of their actions. They bicker with each other during the murder, and clumsily cover their deeds afterwards. This is one of those moments when the details on stage coalesce into something complete: a new vision of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, incompetent yet no less ambitious, murderous yet humanly flawed. Once the crowning of Macbeth is complete though, these performances diverge, and questions arise. Tovey’s performance returns to a traditional path, as she effortlessly executes Lady Macbeth’s guilty descent into madness with all the pathos that one expects from this role. Shammas, meanwhile, skews towards the manic, bounding onto the stage with nervous energy and standing pigeon-toed with wringing hands and cocked head. It is Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin’s Macbeth, injected with so much uncomfortable energy that it eventually ceases to be comedic and takes on something more grotesque. It is undeniably interesting, but difficult to say whether it works. The performance is another victim of the show’s unclear creative vision. When Macbeth proclaims near the end that he has “almost forgot the taste of fears”, I felt an urge to chuckle. Surely this is ironic, I thought, as the Macbeth I had spent the last hour and a half watching showed me constant fear and anxiety. I supressed the chuckle, unsure whether I would be laughing with or at the show.

This is, despite any criticisms detailed above, still one of the best productions of Macbeth that this reviewer has seen. The set, lighting, sound, and costumes are all exquisite; the actors move around the stage with grace and discipline; the small moments of pain and intimacy are portrayed with clarity and realism. There are moments when this show absolutely shines. As a complete theatre piece though, it seems confused, dangling precariously between traditionalism and experimentation, serving up a Macbeth that is at once easily recognisable and alien. Perhaps this is director Peter Evans intention. Perhaps this is a subversive masterpiece, with an intentionally destabilising tone and ironic sensibility. Perhaps you should go see it and decide for yourself.

Image Credit: Brett Boardman


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