MACBETH, Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House April 12-May 20, 2011 then touring. Photos by Rush: Dan Spielman and Kate Mulvany, main pic; Lizzie Schebesta (right).
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most consistently popular plays with audiences and this production, directed by Peter Evans, follows perilously soon after Bell Shakespeare's 2007 version. Comparisons are odious, as Dogberry very nearly said, but it's "perilous" because the '07 production was wonderfully directed by John Bell, and starred a fascinating, memorable Linda Cropper as Lady Mac.
Evans, with his dramaturg-collaborator and star Kate Mulvany may not have had it somewhere in the back of their minds; but some Bell regulars would have. So how to approach the monster and put a fresh spin on it (and her)? They did it, however, and Lady Macbeth in this production is as close to a scene-stealing star as she is ever likely to be.
In an insightful piece written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Mulvany wrote of her role, "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?…" Mulvany describes having an epiphany during rehearsals: "Could Lady Macbeth be grieving?"
She went back to the text and there, she believes, she found evidence that the lady was grieving the recent loss of a baby. She 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…' " And that gave Mulvany the key to the woman who – let's face it – many women have difficulty in accepting as just a crazy, homicidal, ambitious bitch.
It makes perfect 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. "Co-dependence", Mulvany calls it. But there's another aspect to these Macbeths that's peculiar to Dan Spielman, as Macbeth, and Mulvany and it's their youth.
Tradition – well, the past century's tradition at any rate – has meant that the Macbeths are most often played by the senior actors of a company. Macbeth is a maturely regal presence, as apparently behooves ancient Scottish royalty. His wife is seemingly most believable as a crazed harpy and also on what's known as the wrong side of 40; that being the customary age at which most actresses are supposed to go bonkers under the constant pressure of ageism and sexism.
Yet 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. In this production the Macbeths' youth is not emphasised, but it is there for all to latch on to. 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 - his equivalent of going to the footie and the pub. Plotting and scheming might be the hobby of the day, but he is a young man with all his awkward uncertainties.
Meanwhile, his wife – prone to the somehow girlish ailment of hiccups – 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. It's a heart-rending, generous performance from Mulvany.
This central relationship is a gripping one and it works. The other magnetic presence on this stage is Colin Moody. He has a way with tough but troubled men that is both frightening and strangely touching as Duncan; he is a remarkable actor and casting him almost inevitably brings a powerful, grounded focus to a play.
Also powerful in this production is the playing of the Witches. Instead of a trio of hags or nymphettes dancing around a fire, there is a lithe Lizzie Schebesta, wired for sound and an electronic harmoniser. The electro-voices are a great idea, both dramatically and in a touring production where every body counts and counts plenty.
As well as the atmospheric and effective Witch(es) this Macbeth is blessed with and equally atmospheric and effective set and sound. The blasted heath - all stunted grasses, bare patches of puddle and gravel - is as chilly and adrift with foreboding as any bit of highland Scotland. It's reflected in a skewed and almost opaque mirrored ceiling that suggests lowering skies as well as the ominous quality of the air around Glamis and Cawdor. It's a beautiful piece of work by designer Anna Cordingley and lighting designer Damien Cooper.
The baleful soundtrack to the drama is the work of composer Kelly Ryall and the other ingredient of the undercurrent of menace is Nigel Poulton's fight and movement direction: the duel towards the end of the play is done with lumpen, heavy broadswords rather than the usual clash of rapiers and is genuinely frightening.
The only downside to the production is the visual confusion caused by all the men bar one wearing full beards and very similar quasi-military uniforms. Subtle differences of trim denote rank, but it's not enough in the heat of the moment, particularly in the first 10-15 minutes of the play, to work out who's who. A crown or gold band for the king, or a few loops of gold braid and frogging here and there would be useful; otherwise even knowing the play isn't enough.
Nevertheless, there is much to admire and savour in this misty, dangerous production, and the characterisation of Lady Macbeth is high on the list. Kate Mulvany is a remarkable talent.