Macbeth ~ theatre notes

Sunday, July 18, 2004


Macbeth by William Shakespeare, directed by Fiona Blair, with Richard Bligh, Stewart Morritt, Julia Zemiro, Mark Hennessy, Grant Mouldey, Georgina Naidu and Jeannie Van De Veld. The Old Van, at Theatreworks, until August 1

In Macbeth, it is always night: an endless darkness which brings no sleep, a waking dream from which there is no escape. As the critic Jan Kott says, this is history as nightmare: not a grand cyclical mechanism by which power replicates itself, but rather the infection of a murderous insanity.

From the moment Macbeth is hailed as King of Scotland by the witches on the heath, he is doomed. Already, as he toys with murder and betrayal, his existence begins to enter the penumbra of madness. "Nothing is," says Macbeth, "but what is not". And so matter itself changes: darkness becomes corporeal, and what appears solid dissolves into thin air. In such a world, as obsessive as any Shakespeare created, the dead might walk again, the earth bubble with witches, the ground itself bleed crimes.

This is the night as an active, malign force, a "darkness visible", and it is the substance of The Old Van's magnificent production of Macbeth, now on at Theatreworks. The Old Van, based in Daylesford, comes to Melbourne under Theatreworks' new programming policy of sponsoring independent productions. This Macbeth, which premiered four years ago, toured regional Victoria last year, and so comes to this season with an unusual depth of performance behind it.

Director Fiona Blair begins the action outside the theatre, around a brazier which represents a man's burning armour and introduces an idea of human sacrifice. In the cold July drizzle, it wasn't hard to make the imaginative transition to the fog of a Scottish heath: and the ritualistic chanting of the witches accompanied the audience, now accomplices to a dark enactment, into the theatre proper.

The theatre is stripped bare, opening a cavernously empty space. Although visually impressive, this does have a downside; the bare walls bounce the sound around and muffle some of the dialogue. The set, if it can be called that, is basically Rob Irwin's ingenious and dramatic lighting design: the action moves through a dynamic sculpture of darkness and light, constantly various and surprising within its austere pallet, in which human figures appear and vanish like tormented ghosts. This visual richness is enhanced by a soundscape created by the actors: the cast is present on stage for the whole performance, and those who are not active in the scenes create sonic texture by singing, whispering, wailing, or creating a percussive score with their hands or with sticks.

The set and sound act as a burning glass, heightening the emotional power of the performances. Apart from Lady Macbeth, who is identified by a long skirt and a crimson sash, every performer is dressed identically in a black buttoned coat and trousers, conferring a sexless anonymity which permits some ingenious doubling among the cast of six. The doubling is used in part to highlight the idea that we are entering Macbeth's private nightmare: so the same actor who plays Duncan (Grant Mouldey) also plays Macduff, underlining the continuity of Macbeth's crimes and also his karmic fate: for it is Macduff who in turn kills Macbeth and exacts his revenge.

The costuming permits the actors to literally vanish into the dark spaces of the theatre, to move backstage as shadows or echoes of the foreground action, or to appear out of nowhere simply by turning around. The performance is all in their faces and hands, which are lit with spectral pallor. I was surprised, all the same, when they took their bows, to see how few they were - not counting sundry spear carriers and bottlewashers, there are forty three parts in Macbeth, and six actors play all of them.

The take on gender is particularly interesting in this production. One of the witches is male and many of the minor male characters are played by women. This permits a particularly Shakespearean fluidity of gender and identity, and highlights the play's concern with masculinity, most clearly written in the scenes between Macbeth and his wife, but recurring obsessively throughout the play.

It is clear that the mockery with which Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to murder Duncan emerges from an unspoken failure in their marriage, and that Macbeth is driven by his fear that he is not quite a man. For all Macbeth's concern to protect his bloodline, he and Lady Macbeth have no children, and this childlessness sounds through the play again and again: in his jealousy and eventual murder of Banquo, who will, unlike Macbeth, father kings; and in the heartbreaking scene when Macduff is told of the murder of his family. "He has no children", says Macduff, in a particularly barbed line. And when Ross tells him to "dispute it like a man" and put aside his grief, Macduff posits a different view of masculinity, which does not eschew love: in order to act, he must first "feel (his love) like a man". Macduff knows he is a man, while Macbeth deeply fears that he is not; and the implication is that Macbeth's bloody tyranny stems from this fear.

But mainly this production is an evocation of insanity, driven by the tragic passion between Macbeth (Richard Bligh) and Lady Macbeth (Julia Zemiro). Early on, there are flashes of psychosis in Julia Zemiro's performance, but it is always controlled by a steely will. Macbeth's resolution to murder Duncan is the only occasion in the play when the two touch: after the murder, which Lady Macbeth demands as proof of Macbeth's love for her ("When you durst do it, then you were a man"), they are irrevocably divided. In a particularly poignant gesture, Macbeth reaches out to cup his wife's belly; but his hand is arrested six inches away, as if it strikes an invisible barrier. A void has opened between them, and all that is left of their erotic obsession is its sterility.

Richard Bligh's Macbeth travels through madness to total nihilism, unable to feel fear, or even grief for his dead wife. "I gin to be aweary of the sun," he says: his life and his death are now equally absurd and meaningless, and all that remains is the relentless playing out of the logic of murder. This total alienation makes Lady Macbeth's madness especially heart-wrenching, and Julia Zemiro's performance of this famous scene is both potent and poignant, escaping cliche through the sheer force of its emotional truthfulness.

This is true of all the powerful moments of the play; the performances are beautifully nuanced, working with admirable restraint until the crucial scenes, when suddenly there are no boundaries. In terms of invoking pity and terror, this production has scenes as powerful as any I have seen: the murder of Banquo is genuinely frightening, Macduff's grief and guilt devastating. Richard Bligh, Stewart Morritt and Grant Mouldey have peak moments, and I'm sure I was not the only audience member in tears. But it feels unfair to single out particular actors from this tight ensemble; those who played a dozen characters each are equally as responsible for the power of the whole.

In its conception and execution, this production is a brilliant vindication of poetic imagination in theatre: using the simplest of resources, The Old Van creates a complex and potent metaphor of the world. And it's a rare example of the idea of theatre as a holy space, in which all present participate in a cathartic enactment of ritual. It also struck me as particularly Australian, although this may sound like a peculiar observation: its approach to the text was utterly serious and committed, but without a trace of reverence, and nobody felt any need to be anything but unselfconsciously Australian in speaking Shakespeare's blank verse (unless they were English, like Morritt). And guess what? It works: Shakespeare's language comes fully alive with a touch of the vernacular. Underneath this production's boldness and ingenuity, there is a self-belief in the emotional arc of the play which can only emerge from a true naivety, a freshness that takes these old ideas and makes something utterly new.


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