Review: Macbeth (Melbourne Theatre Company)

Name the last time you saw Macbeth in full Elizabethan garb? Or set in traditional Scotland? Maybe it was uncut if you were lucky. Can’t remember? Exactly.

Purists, begone! The Melbourne Theatre Company’s current production of the Bard’s shortest and arguably most-performed tragedy is a visually stunning and engrossing aural experience for a contemporary audience.

While it has clearly upset more traditional reviewers in the media in recent weeks (wanting something more substantial), this version of Macbeth serves as a perfect introduction to the play for those who have never seen it performed and/or younger theatre-goers. The theatre public always vote with their feet (and wallets), and the MTC has seen demand requiring additional performances.

This time around, the play’s cast is cut by half and its full running time by about one-third. The double-ups and triple-ups of some actors playing multiple (often smaller) roles does not present any problems. If you leave your bias at the door, you’ll barely notice the absence of some scenes from a play you probably last read in high school.

‘Tis true, this Macbeth is like a film on stage. The MTC’s budget for the show is clearly substantial. Many of Shaun Gurton’s multiple sets are grand and impressive. Add to these a complicated revolve, incorporating up to half a dozen smaller sets simultaneously. It is so refreshing to see a play without a single, permanent, lacklustre set the entire length of the show. The width of the Sumner Theatre stage, along with the lowering of our vision for many scenes when the height of the proscenium was deliberately reduced, made the audience aptly feel like they were watching the action through a huge widescreen television.

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Simon Phillips last directed Macbeth for the MTC way back in 1989. Now, almost three decades later, he has taken the play into an ever-present, perhaps near-future, almost dystopian society. Just like the Scottish play of old, Phillips lets it raise its ugly head in the midst of war, death and destruction.

Yet today’s problems are more complex. The opening scene sees the witches in dark, contemporary clothing sitting together in a bus shelter. As they leave, the bomb in the backpack beneath their seat is triggered with an almighty bang. This is a society plagued by ever-evolving, non-traditional methods of warfare.

This is a Macbeth with laptops on desks and mobile phones in hand, yet it somehow seems relevant and not trite. The ‘battlefield’ is any contemporary war-torn setting on this planet. The viewer is asked to make it their own. Esther Marie Hayes’ impressive costumes are military, contemporary, regal, and casual all at the same time. Most of the costume palette is sombre, reflecting the play’s dark themes.

It has been a while since I saw a play (not musical) and walked out believing the score was the most impressive aspect of the show. Ian McDonald’s musical compositions for this production both underpin and enhance the movement and spoken word, effectively intensifying moments of tension and suspense in a thoroughly cinematic style. Yes, it is in your face, brash and loud (at times akin to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty), but this is Macbeth after all, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hollywood Australian Jai Courtney (Spartacus, Jack Reacher, Suicide Squad) does an able job in the title role. His visual presence as a soldier is stronger than his vocal delivery, with his tall, broad, commanding stature. Geraldine Hakewill portrays Lady Macbeth with conviction, portraying all her ruthless ambition, while the supporting cast are even. Much has been made in the press about the choreographed fight scenes in this show. They will no doubt bother some who won’t find them believable, but this is the theatre and highly realistic fight scenes are always difficult to stage. One has to accept sometimes that close enough is good enough and to simply suspend your disbelief.

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The MTC’s Macbeth is a fresh and fast paced interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. While purists may find the many cuts unacceptable, at just under two hours without interval the younger generation should find this Macbeth a visual spectacle that both educates and entertains.

Macbeth runs at MTC’s Sumner Theatre until 20 July

 

 

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