Macbeth

Of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth seems the most prescient, apposite to a species rapidly running out of world. Upon hearing of the Witches’ prophecy, and resolving her course with chilling alacrity, Lady Macbeth invokes the nether realm of her potentialities:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty.

Early in the second act, Macbeth witnesses the apparition of a dagger which bloodies in accord with the slant of his imagining. Even as he declares its unreality, the image yawns into a vision of darkness visible:

Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep

He imagines a loping wolf, and follows it to his own prey.

Shakespeare was an actor, and knew theatrical process intimately. During rehearsals and before performances, actors use games, exercises, and meditations of various kinds to loosen the habit of perceived reality. It is tempting to picture Shakespeare dreaming these scenes, watching actors preparing to play Marlowe’s tyrants, or his own Richard of Gloucester, recognising evil within their own possibility. To become murderers, Lord and Lady Macbeth enact comparable rituals of visualisation and invocation; learning bloody instruction from imagination.

Macbeth 4 largerHugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth (photograph by Brett Boardman)

The dread of the piece stems from the growing apprehension of the porous and flimsy barrier between a vast and watchful hunger resident in nature, and the human self. However flimsy their mooring, dislodging the artefacts of identity is perilous. Iago and Richard, villains of more conventional stamp, are consummate actors. In uttering ‘I am not what I am’, Iago inverts the divine syllogism of the name of God, and in his nightmare before the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard follows this negation to the depth of its conclusion: ‘Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I … I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.’

Macbeth’s villainy is less elemental and more complexly human, but the scope of his negation is equally large. He yearns to erase both Duncan and the consequences of his murder in one blow, yet realises that in so doing, ‘We’d jump the life to come’; they would slip, as it were, through the language of space-time. His prediction is terrifyingly astute. After Duncan’s murder, we enter a desolate interior landscape animated by its own laws. After only three acts, he has grown old in thought: ‘I have lived long enough. My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.’

In one respect he was mistaken: Lord and Lady Macbeth pass into separate maladies. She fades into nightmare, while he retains sufficient belief to fashion himself into a king. Critics like Bradley attribute Lady Macbeth’s quicker descent to an imagination less sanguine, but her role in the first acts is decisive, and her negation fully cognisant, unlike Macbeth’s hypnotic nightmare.

‘Macbeth’s villainy is less elemental and more complexly human, but the scope of his negation is equally large’

While Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth is significantly flawed, director Kip Williams’ concept is a thrilling response to the relationship between performance and negation in the text. Williams’s spatial concept, executed by designer Alice Babidge, crowds the audience into a row of bleachers on stage, while the auditorium looms above and behind the performance. This set inverts the symbolic ontology of the proscenium, and foregrounds a vision of the world not as a stage, but as a vacantly expectant theatre. At moments throughout, the dimensions of this space emphasise both the psychological theatricality of the tragedy, and the cosmic emptiness against which Macbeth struts and frets.

During the last acts, the air drifts with luminous scintilla, which becomes variously rain, sleet, ash, and distant stars. This melancholy firmament is the truer context of the play’s final acts, against which Malcolm’s politicking is absurdly quaint, a dissonance further emphasised by Eden Falk’s increasingly antique costume.


Macbeth 2 PhotoBrett BoardmanMelita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth and Hugo Weaving as Macbeth in Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth (photograph by Brett Boardman)

Hugo Weaving is an actor of presence. His Macbeth is mercurial, coldly assertive, and rippling with sudden violence. While a solidly compelling performance, however, it lacks nuance, and feels inapposite to the visual universe of the play. In two hours’ traffic, sans interval, there is barely a moment in which we see Macbeth think. He acts, and reacts to visual stimuli, with little between. Even ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ is spat through clenched teeth.

Melita Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth is simply bad. Her every line is breathily hysterical, like a Judi Dench impersonator in a Ben Elton comedy. The direction is also at fault. In an attempt to avoid femme fatale clichés, Williamson has Jurisic deliver the chilling analogy ‘I have given suck’ as a grief-stricken collapse. This understanding of Lady Macbeth is weak, with injurious effects upon the tension and causal structure of the first two acts.

Macbeth 1 Photo Brett BoardmanHugo Weaving as Macbeth in Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth (photograph by Brett Boardman)

The supporting cast perform well, but with a sense of anomie. Paula Arundel’s Banquo, barely pausing for breath, whirs through iambs. The presence of Robert Menzies, John Gaden, and Eden Falk, combined with a number of borrowed design features, induces vivid recollections of Benedict Andrews’s epic The War of the Roses (STC, 2009). Were they articulately framed, these allusions might constitute a subtle parenthesis to the theatricality of this production. As it stands, they invite unfortunate comparison with that monument of aesthesis and intellect.

The dissonance among this production’s parts is curious. It suggests insufficient rehearsal time, or that Williams had difficulty heeling his star to his concept. Or it might suggest the complacency natural to a production that sold out months before it opened. Macbeth is vividly memorable, and I am convinced of Williams’s talent, but this play has not achieved itself.

The last few scenes raise a Brechtian eyebrow at the audience, as though chiding us for belief, prematurely.

Macbeth was directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company. Performances run from the 21 July to 27 September at Sydney Theatre.

Published in September 2014 no. 364
Jonathan Dunk

Jonathan Dunk

Jonathan Dunk, an actor and theatre director, is a PhD student at the University of Sydney.

By this contributor

Comments (2)

  • Leave a comment

    I agree with Dr Gibson that the business of criticizing theatre is a fraught one, no performance being wholly iterable. We do appear to have attended markedly different productions. Of the ensemble effect she describes I found little trace. Rather, as I have written, I perceived a deep stylistic dissonance between the casual register affected by the supporting cast, and Weaving’s often lyrical performance.
    The production’s soundscape, which I did indeed neglect to mention in the review, was affective in the same rudimentary sense that a bass groan reliably produces a sensation of menace, and a shrill howl evokes the presence of a storm. These frankly intuitive measures are the daily bread of student theatre, and in this play they elucidated the nuance of neither the character nor the world of Macbeth.
    I found Weaving’s performance neither examining nor examined, but I think that individual performance is where we must allow the widest margin for possible response, being so much a matter of personal instinct and presence.
    I used the word ‘quaint’ precisely, to describe the comparative tone of specific scenes in the fourth act, a tone which I complimented the production on exaggerating through the costuming of Malcolm in doublet, hose, and ruff. I did not intend to ascribe that quality to the production.
    There is indeed a difference between competence and ineptitude, and I believe I know which one I saw. But for the sake of clarity, is competence an achievement? Surely when one of the most harrowing tragedies in literature is performed by actors of training, experience, and international repute, amply funded furthermore by a national flagship company, competence is the utter minimum of virtue.
    Dr Gibson and I seem to have approached Macbeth with very different levels of expectation. I don’t think we go to the theatre to witness competence, I believe we do it to feel transport, ecstasy, pity and terror.

    Wednesday, 03 September 2014 15:46 posted by Jonathan Dunk
  • Leave a comment

    It feels as if I experienced a very different production to the one reviewed here. Although the reviewer is knowledgeable of Shakespeare as his credentials are made clear, what seems to be overlooked is the ensemble effect and affect of a production that is inventive—not 'quaint'. The music in particular was astonishingly brilliant in its abstract spookiness. It operated as a key element in evoking a protracted mood of dread and anxiety. I realise that part of the beauty and loss of theatre is that every performance is different. My experience of the play was very different from the one reviewed here. There is also no doubt that Hugo Weaving was convincing in his intense examination of a life not so well lived. I did not see the 'Tomorrow' speech being 'spat out'—the mood was more defeatist...Lady Macbeth is also not 'simply bad'. She played her part competently but not badly. There is a difference.

    Friday, 29 August 2014 12:53 posted by Dr Suzie Gibson

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.