Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth – fresh and gripping

Macbeth Bell Shakespeare
Macbeth - Bell Shakespeare. Image source: supplied

Macbeth – “The Scottish Play” – is famously believed to be cursed. According to theatre lore, the witches’ incantation in the first act of the play, which William Shakespeare wrote with detail to appease King James, who had written a book on the behaviour of witches, hit a little too close to home with a Scottish coven.

Shakespeare’s words apparently lifted a spell right out of their rituals and, in return, the witches put a curse on the play. Ever since, it’s been considered bad luck to even say “Macbeth” in a theatre.

Of course, some people will insist that the superstition is just an overblown reaction to the fact that the play has more swordplay than most, therefore making it more dangerous and ripe for injury, but where’s the fun in that?

Someone might have said the Scottish Lord’s name one too many times without doing any of the fix-it rituals while rehearsing for the Bell Shakespeare production, the first of its 2012 season, because opening night had to be delayed due to a pervasive case of food poisoning working its way through the cast.

Happily, though, the production rallied, and its opening night on April 12th was by all accounts a success. With a fresh perspective from director Peter Evans, Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes this sprawling production and creates an intimate glimpse into the high court and its players. But, most effectively, what this production does is take the iconic couple of Macbeth and his Lady and tells their descent into murder and madness not as a study in evil, but, rather, as a devastating fall from grace.

Much of that intimacy comes from the staging and set design by Anna Cordingley and lighting by Damien Cooper. A grassy expanse dotted by bushes becomes battlefields and castles alike, with only very selective and spare prop use, but no more than used is needed. This is an urgent journey that, once started, is inescapable. A large, low-hanging mirrored panel acts as a ceiling of sorts, reflecting the grassy earth into the sky, and it’s almost remarkable how inevitable the tragic ending feels when we can’t once have a break from this small-seeming and constant, unchanging space.

The story is as it always is: Macbeth and his wife, acting on a hunch from a dubious source, kill their king so Macbeth can take his crown. Their treacherous deeds are their undoing. Macbeth’s reign is marred with terror, and once the murders have started they cannot be stopped. Everything unravels.

Kate Mulvany plays Lady Macbeth, but also takes on the mantle of dramaturg for the production, so perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Lady M here is a little more of a sympathetic character than usual. In her program notes, Mulvany posits that Macbeth and his Lady are a grieving couple who have perhaps just lost a child – an interesting twist given how important Macbeth’s lack of issue becomes in the play. Certainly these touches are the most real of the night: Mulvany’s tearfulness melts into resolve as she says that she would kill her child rather than renege on her half of the murder plot, and Macbeth’s (Dan Spielman) lighthearted playfulness with young Fleance is a much needed grounding of his character before he is transformed by the consequences of committing murder. We see in him the father he could have been; we feel deeper still the betrayal he commits by targeting Banquo and Fleance for death to keep them away from his throne.

Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth
Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth. Image source: supplied

Mulvany also suggests that this is the first turn into evil that Lady M has taken; that she’s never called upon spirits to advance her doings or her fortunes. While she seems a little too content with her murder plans for this to be the case, it does create a resonant sense that she and her husband are truly co-conspirators. So much of the relationship of Macbeth and his Lady hinge on one small exchange:

Macbeth: And if we fail?
Lady Macbeth: We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.

And here it is just right. She encourages Macbeth, supports him, and they end the exchange on each other’s side. They are a team and this is crucial, particularly in the later scenes highlighting Macbeth’s unhinged madness – spying Banquo’s bloody ghost – and Lady M’s smooth lies to cover his behaviour. She does, bizarrely, still have his back. These scenes were some of the best of the night. Evans’ production dances close to black comedy throughout, and that could have been delved into further for a more satisfying chill to each laugh.

Spielman is a Macbeth who, in his beginning, is such a good-humored and likable man that it’s all the more shocking to see him become twisted with the pressures of his deeds and their consequences. Genuinely appearing to be in love with his Lady, and she with him, he seems in his own way just as strong and determined as she is; there is a real equality and chemistry between the actors, and that is so important.

As Macbeth becomes more frenzied, Spielman shows his unhinging with impressive, realistic restraint; in the moments of Macbeth’s asides, or in those moments wherein his mental torture and hallucinations take centre stage, it is easy to forget you are watching an actor ‘do Shakespeare’, even when reciting the classic “sound and fury, signifying nothing”, and that is so crucial. Spielman is well-suited to the stage and well-deserving of the role.

For all that this production quite rightly makes the troubled couple the focus of the action, the other featured players are exceptionally strong. Ivan Donato as Macduff grew into the space and the character on opening night somewhere around Act IV, upon receiving the news that paranoid now-King Macbeth had slaughtered his wife and children. When he tells Malcolm (the appealing Robert Jago) he will fight as a man for vengeance, but will also grieve as one, we suddenly understand the resolve that allows him to face the crazed Macbeth and fight for retribution.

[pull_right] It’s a good thing that it has recovered from the curse of the Scottish Play, because this production deserves to be seen and was well worth the wait[/pull_right]

Also of note is the turn taken with the three witches and Hecate, the supernatural, demonological element of the play that sets all things in motion. The witches plant those seeds of deadly ambition in Macbeth’s mind by telling him that he will ascend his title of Thanes of Glamis and Cawdor and find himself a King; they later reveal, obliquely, Macbeth’s Achilles’ Heel of being one who won’t be killed by a man born of a natural birth. These witches were represented with just one actress (Lizzie Schebesta) in a decision that proved itself as the right one over time. Three witches would have overwhelmed the small world of the stage, but one, with distorted microphones to create three voices, was a chilling supernatural force wrapped up in the small, fragile, and big-eyed Schebesta, who is languid and careless one moment with a sexy air, and shakingly vulnerable the next. You trust her even as she seems completely otherworldly, and that’s an intriguing dichotomy.

Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth is fresh and gripping. It’s a good thing that it has recovered from the curse of the Scottish Play, because this production deserves to be seen and was well worth the wait. Get along and see it if you can; you’ll be glad you did.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

2 thoughts on “Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth – fresh and gripping

  • Lizzie Schebesta is magnificent, making every gesture, every movement, every utterance count. A very fine Macbeth that stays in the mind.

  • ‘Macbeth’ lacked subtlety of characterization, going from ambitious to deranged and evil with seemingly nothing in between. Staging, lighting, sound, Lady Macbeth and the witch, very good! Why though, does almost every character have to yell their lines with limited rise and fall and change in mood. So much emphasis was lost when everything sounded the same, or unnecessarily passionate…. Light and Dark?


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