Review: Macbeth—Shakespeare Under the Stars14 February 2021
As the sun set behind the trees at The Royal Botanic Gardens, the proverbial curtains opened on The Australian Shakespeare Company’s latest production, Macbeth. The production is part of their Shakespeare Under the Stars series, which currently also features A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helmed by director Glenn Elston OAM and Nathaniel Dean in the titular role, this particular rendition largely missed the mark in its staging of one of the Bard’s arguably meatier and more psychologically thrilling plays.
Dean’s man-bunned Macbeth was particularly disappointing, failing to convey both the character’s deadly ambition and eventual paranoid psychosis, making his descent into madness all the harder to believe. Dean’s monotonous performance, also prone to flubbing his lines, was somewhat remedied by Alison Whyte, whose turn as Lady Macbeth was both captivating and convincing. Equally riveting were the Three Witches (played by Annabelle Tudor, Madeleine Mason and Claire Nicholls), who excelled both individually and as an ensemble. Adopting cat-like movements that bordered on dance, they were as enthralling to watch as their rhyming prophecies were to hear. Costuming (designed by Karla Erenbots) was especially effective here. Dressed in layers of mismatched cloth, their hair styled in dreadlocks tangled with rags, charms and trinkets (I even counted a cat’s tail among other such things), the Witches appeared as other-worldly and incorporeal as Macbeth describes them.
Of note was Elston’s decision to cast Anna Burgess as Malcolm, the eldest son of slain King Duncan and thus rightful king of Scotland. This choice is perhaps unsurprising given the play’s fascination with the disruption of gender—for instance, Lady Macbeth’s usurpation of the dominant role in the Macbeth’s marriage and her infamous plea to be unsexed, as well as the Three Witches’ ambiguous gender due to their beards. (Sadly, no beards were seen here). Although male pronouns were kept, it was nevertheless refreshing, if not fitting in one of Shakespeare’s arguably more misogynistic plays, to see Burgess’ Malcolm stand triumphant at the play’s conclusion.
Interestingly, for a play full of foul deeds and death, little bloodshed occurred on-stage. The only blood seen was on the dagger used by Macbeth to kill King Duncan (offstage) and Lady Macbeth’s blood-stained hands. Macbeth’s violent dispatching of Young Siward, as well as his own death at Macduff’s hands (both in the final act) similarly occurred out of view and the fight sequences (choreographed by Charlie Mycroft), of which there were many, were uninspired and uninspiring.
Much more successful was the set design. The Gardens provided an appropriately moody setting, the cold, wind and growing darkness not only a good match for the play’s dark themes but also Scotland’s tempestuous climate. All in all, it gave one a wondrous sense of having been transported to the heath where Macbeth first encounters the Witches. Music, provided by sound designer Paul Norton, enlivened the already atmospheric staging, as peals of thunder rung out across the lawn. The use of blue lights as well as smoke machines, co-ordinated by Kaspa Elston, were welcome additions that improved the overall experience; the latter in particular helped the stage appear preternaturally alive as Dunsinane forest in the closing act. Such effects worked best e under the cover of complete darkness, a pity for the first interval.
Macbeth is showing at Royal Botanic Gardens Southern Cross Lawn until March 6. More information at www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au.