Pop-up Globe, The Entertainment Quarter, Sydney
September 6, 2018

Walking into the Pop-up Globe’s opening night presentation of Macbeth, it was obvious the audience were expecting plenty of bawdy humour and lashings of blood. While they certainly got a bit of both, overall there were missed opportunities on both fronts that proved surprising.

Stephen Lovatt and Amanda Billing. Photo © Pop-up Globe

Given that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, most dramatically taut plays, it’s strange that this production, directed by Tom Mallaburn, is slow to take off in the first half. Whereas many would expect a slightly hectic quality from the rough and ready nature of the Pop-up Globe’s stagings, there was a noticeable absence of energy that suggested some scenes and performances needed to be more tightly directed.

Things picked up considerably once the action moved to Macbeth’s ‘pleasant seat’. The actors portraying the troubled central couple played off each other well, with Amanda Billing an effective Lady M and Stephen Lovatt a bluff, increasingly scattershot Macca. Both performances grew in stature over the evening, Billing’s tensile quality rubbing up against Lovatt’s growing nihilism. Proving the venue’s worth, the gust of wind during the former’s reading of ‘unsex me now’ was truly spooky.

The rest of the cast do a fine job, particularly those playing the Macduffs – Serena Cotton is strong and appealingly wry in her brief time onstage, while Matu Ngaropo sensitively realises his character’s tragedy. Jason Will also makes for a sturdy Banquo, conveying a sense of genial decency, and Greg Johnson is a memorable Porter, packing a rather alarming prosthetic penis.

Julia Guthrey, Romy Hooper and Mia Landgren. Photo © Pop-up Globe

What’s more, the fighting is well done and what blood there was made a real impact with the audience. And although the presentation of the weird sisters is just ever so slightly naff, the committed performances (Romy Hooper, Julia Guthrey and Mia Landgren) eventually win you over.

Those unconvinced by the unfocused first half would have been engrossed after interval. Macbeth’s subsequent encounter with the witches is simply but effectively staged – a bevy of actors wearing Banquo mask is one of the night’s most striking stage pictures. Increased use of the balcony also lent a different but welcome texture to the blocking, particularly in the sleepwalking scene.

While the first half needed an injection of zest and the second half had this in spades, it meant some crucial moments felt rushed. The heavily cut scene between Lady Macduff and her son is one such example, and another missed opportunity to bring humour to the fore. The brevity of their stage time also meant their subsequent deaths were shorn of their impact, the audience having had little opportunity to invest in what can, and is often presented elsewhere, as rich, fully rounded lives. The sleepwalking scene suffers from the same sense of compression, though Billings overcomes this to give a compelling performance.

Stephen Lovatt. Photo © Pop-up Globe

Intriguingly, this production isn’t afraid to properly fiddle with the text for matters of narrative expediency. It is Lady Macbeth who warns Lady Macduff of her impending doom, not an unnamed messenger – she bears witness to the slayings and is given a moment of grief over the body of Lady Macduff’s son. It certainly works in this staging for the aforementioned reason, but these changes also have important implications for her character – they gesture to Lady Macbeth’s growing sense of remorse and questions around her childlessness. Disappointingly, these things aren’t really borne out in the production in any meaningful way.

Against a lively pipe and drum score, this is still a very enjoyable night at the theatre and would doubtless serve as a wonderful introduction to the uninitiated. Inevitably, some of the words are lost at times and so is the play’s poetry. However, it’s a committed take on a notoriously difficult to stage work, and you can’t help but applaud everyone’s efforts. The opening night audience certainly did.


The Pop-up Globe’s Macbeth is at the Entertainment Quarter, Sydney until November 3

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine