If only the Big Idea were bigger as Hugo Weaving takes on the Scottish play.

Sydney Theatre

July 26, 2014

This production of “the Scottish play” is one of Sydney Theatre Company’s hot-ticket, much-anticipated shows of 2014, largely because in the title role is Hugo Weaving, renowned stage actor and international movie star. Consequently, it was close to sold out before opening night, although that’s partly because director Kip Williams had the Bright Idea of turning the theatre back to front – seating the audience on stage and placing the action in the auditorium. In practical terms, it instantly cut seating capacity by about two-thirds, which seems perverse. Perverse too for the audience as the temporary bleachers are amazingly uncomfortable. If a patron doesn’t suffer a DVT some time during the season it will be a miracle.

Discomfort sets in much earlier than circulation loss, however. In the opening sequence the Weird Sisters take it in turn to thrust their faces into a washing up bowl of water and blow bubbles. Then the trio – Robert Menzies, in fine melodramatic, high declamatory form, with Kate Box and Ivan Donato – recite their fabled incantation, while dripping water and sounding theatrically crazy. Meanwhile the rest of the cast sits around the table staring into space, thus signifying they’re actually somewhere else. In retrospect such a big hint should have been taken, if not, then from the next when blood is spewed across the table by an anonymous figure in a white plastic raincoat who’s channeling one of the Two Fat Ladies. It’s pretty much downhill from then on.

Together with the back-to-front setting, this Macbeth is a night of “And then what?” moments. “And-then-what?” should be the foundation of any enterprise: someone has a Great Idea, expounds it with much excitement but then, more often than not, no one follows up with “and then what?” This is a pity, as it would save a lot of heartache and time, because if there’s no immediate coherent answer you can be reasonably sure your Great Idea is not.

Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy can be interpreted and presented from many angles and has been staged in Sydney in recent vivid memory in two very different and idea-ful productions. In 2007 John Bell’s Bright Idea was to make it quite obviously about sex and power and to cast Linda Cropper and Sean O’Shea as, “a passionate pair: in love with each other and their exalted position in the precarious pecking order of Scottish warlords. Their mutual attraction is pure narcissism: they see invincibility and inevitability reflected in each other and their menace as a duo is palpable…” (stagenoise.com archive.)

In 2011 Bell Shakespeare Company revisited the play and this time director Peter Evans’ Bright Idea was to have Kate Mulvany adapt the text as well as play the queen. Mulvany also had a Bright Idea and wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “When people speak of Lady M, most reply, ‘She’s a villain who convinces her husband to kill.’ But she’s more than that, surely. Does she have to be a villain? Did her husband really need much convincing? Could Lady Macbeth be grieving?”

 In the text, she believed, she had found evidence that the lady was grieving the loss of a baby. Mulvany wrote, “I believe, in fact, that Lady Macbeth is possibly still lactating. ‘Take my milk for gall…I have given suck and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me…’” It makes sense of the Macbeths’ lust for life – they have lost life already – and it also makes sense of their almost obsessive love and dependence on each other. But there was another aspect to those Macbeths that was Peter Evans’s other Bright Idea. Beside Mulvany’s queen was Dan Spielman as Macbeth – and they were youthful!

Writing then of this relationship, I said, “go back 400 years and most people were dead at 40 and kings were teenagers or less; hence the wicked regents and other stirrings of the dramatic pot… This Thane is a bit of a lad, likely to enjoy a day out hunting with his mates; and a pot of ale later in front of the fire… Meanwhile, his wife is the one who is actually at risk because of her age. She has no underpinnings of experience, no emotional armament with which to defend herself. Her ideas and actions become inevitable as she cracks and breaks under the strain of this very particular kind of aloneness…”

Referencing these two recent productions underlines that liberties can be taken, fresh thinking is possible, but in all instances the question “and then what?” was asked of the bright ideas and credible, workable answers were forthcoming. In his program notes for the STC production, Kip Williams makes a long and sophomoric case for the one Big Idea but it basically comes down to, “I was pretty new at this business when I stood on the stage looking out into the auditorium and thought – wow!” Which is what most non-actors think – and remain exercised about the thought for perhaps five minutes before getting on with the job.

Nevertheless, Williams has a decent track record so far (Under Milk Wood, for instance) so this doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the various members of the cast appear to be in different plays. It starts from the top with Weaving and his queen (Melita Jurisic) performing as mellifluously as if the ghost of John Gielgud and other thesps of 1940s London had taken Banquo’s place. It’s the Weaving style and people apparently love it, but awful to see the marvelous Jurisic in such reduced circumstances, not least because the crucial role of the Queen has so little space in this interpretation. She is also severely hampered by an outfit – in this contemporarily-costumed staging – that makes her look more like the cleaning lady than a royal wife. Dreary clothes notwithstanding, sadly, there is precious little passion or heart between the Macbeths – it’s all posing, prowling, pouting and plums.

Meanwhile, the estimable Paula Arundell stalks about the stage as Banquo being stabbed a lot while valiantly ignoring the knife she’s holding throughout. It’s supposed to be her sword but it looks ridiculous and should have been dealt with. (Tuck it in your pocket or down the back of your jeans, dear.) She finally has her time in the sun as Lady Macduff, but by then it’s too little, too late. Nevertheless, she shares with John Gaden one of the two truly affecting scenes in the show when humanity and tenderness pass between two fine actors. It’s heartbreaking and not for the most obvious reason.

The second moment of real connection is when Macduff learns of the murder of his beloved wife and children. As the grief-stricken nobleman, Kate Box, with Eden Falk in support, succeeds in conjuring emotional truth and palpable humanity out of nowhere. She also does it from the rarified height of the Circle. That means she has to overcome not only the actual physical distance but also an audience of which 90% must surely be thinking – Oooh! They’re up there at last! Wonder which stairs they used? Erk, I’d get vertigo. Hmmm, they sound funny…”

Because, of course, the actors are all miked for this confection and that means no matter where they are in the auditorium – which is hardly utilised by the way despite being the Big Idea – they’re all heard at exactly the same volume. Is this a vocal nuance, which I see before me? Sadly, no. Distanciation was never so well demonstrated.

It’s tempting to return to Shakespeare for a conclusion and temptation should rarely be resisted, especially when the playwright so succinctly sums up this misbegotten effort: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Macbeth is at Sydney Theatre until September 27. (All photos by Brett Boardman)