|Photo: Ian Routledge|
Macbeth is the briefest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and is in all likelihood the most familiar to the greatest number of people. It is still studied within an inch of its life in schools, and is by a long way the most searched for of all Shakespeare’s works on the World Wide Web.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that director Yasmin Gurreeboo, along with a five person-strong dramaturgy team, has felt empowered to shuffle the play’s deck so completely in this bold staging which features two single-gendered casts playing on alternate evenings. Like a greatest hits CD on shuffle, nothing comes when you are expecting it to, the weyard sisters, for example, nowhere to be seen when the lights come up, replaced by that most golden of Shakespearian greats beginning ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’ The murders, when they arrive, are all out of sequence. In short, there is an awful lot of assumed knowledge, and even if you do happen to have it, you’re liable to o’erleap in trying to keep up.
The task is made harder by the enigmatic staging. The castle is reimagined as a prison in which Macbeth and various thanes are incarcerated, presumably for prior crimes. There is good sense in this – Macbeth, after all, being a play mainly concerned with the corrosive effects of guilt – but it is never clear whether a particular scene is taking place in the present, in Macbeth’s disturbed memory, or a combination of both. It is already a play brimming with supernatural appearances from ghosts, witches and dead children, and the lack of clarity in terms of the play’s chronology adds an unnecessarily obfuscating layer of mystery.
This is a production with too much topsoil and not enough solid rock. Excessive effort is expended making the concept work instead of making the play as comprehensible as it should be. When the characters that have been repurposed as prison guards, for example, cross the stage with military-like precision, the direction feels imposed, an inelegant answer to a staging problem rather than a solution which emerges organically out of the whole. There is no shortage of lovely directorial touches, from having the witches’ cauldron metamorphose into a toilet bowl, to the chilling finale which quietly defies our expectations of Macbeth’s ultimate fate, but the lucidity of Shakespeare’s play – not to mention its poetry – is too often lost in the disorder.
This is also, it should be said, a strangely bloodless rendering of a play which is amongst Shakespeare’s most ghoulishly violent. The design, by Manda Webber and Olivia Zanchetta, mirrors the space’s grim industrialism in its muted palette of greys, whites and blacks; not so much as a damned spot of red anywhere. Though the effect is undeniably handsome, this decision lends the play a sterility which is at odds with the text, sapping much of the theatrical power of Macbeth’s bloodlust as well as Lady Macbeth’s extraordinary journey from merciless savagery to crushing remorse.
Macbeth is also bloodless in a figurative sense. Bar fine performances by the cast’s more experienced members Patrick Frost, Jacqy Philips and Chrissie Page, both ensembles are peculiarly lacking in dynamism. The men fare better overall, thanks to superior diction and more nuanced characterisation, but few of the performances contain the required amount of oomph. Frost – by turns airily regal and dementedly rudderless – and Philips – earthy and eccentric – are terrific as Macbeth, and strong support is given by David Hirst who provides some much-needed comic relief, and Laura Brenko who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the more successful Lady Macbeth. Also of note is Dan Thorpe’s suitably ethereal sound design which uses blended human voices and hair-raisingly unfamiliar notes to excellent effect.
All of this discussion, however, begs the question: why the two ensembles at all? Gurreeboo asks in her program notes for us to reflect as we are watching on how people in positions of power are ‘evaluated’ in respect of their gender. In light of the noxious recent national debate centred on Australia’s first female prime minister, Gurreeboo’s challenge sounds like a noble one, and even if it is not noble it is certainly ambitious. For this alone she deserves commendation in a city often accused of cultural conservatism. Where the challenge falls down is in its execution. While each ensemble has a distinctive energy, they don’t individually illuminate either Shakespeare’s text or issues of gender and power. The ensembles apparently rehearsed together, and there is a unity of presentation across the two versions which arguably says less about how powerful women are appraised than a mixed gender production might have done. And maybe, in this respect, Gurreeboo underestimates Shakespeare; isn’t the power play between the Macbeths a rich and complex one as it is, and doesn’t it contain within it more than enough nuance for ten conversations about the real or imagined consequences of the intersections between gender and power?