Macbeth review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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They’re calling it the original Game of Thrones, which is a fair enough description, although whether that’s enough to bring in young audiences other than students who are “doing” the play at school is a moot point.
Certainly the setting suggests the scary darkness of George Martin’s novels, but Tolkien fans might also be reminded of the Land of Mordor. In any case, this is one of the most atmospheric sets I’ve ever seen, a wild dark forest far more frightening than even the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows, “where trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side”. Such comparisons serve also to remind us of what Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy, where the natural world echoes natural human traits and feelings.
So Simone Romaniuk’s terrifying design, accompanied by David Walters excelling himself with lighting to frighten the gods, immediately set the tone for this darkest and most supernatural of all Shakespeare’s plays. This really is the descent into evil, the destruction of a hero who, unlike all the others in the canon, deliberately chooses to do the work of the devil for his own advantage. From the opening scene, when those sinister trees growing upside down are shuddered by hideous storms and flashes of lightning, all underscored by the sound and fury of Phil Slade’s musical design, we know that this is no pure academic interpretation of the text, but one that sets it in the supernatural world of Hell. Dante would not feel out of place here, nor Milton’s Satan, because this is hell, nor are we out of it.
With such a design team, the next task of the director is to produce characters who fit into this landscape and make us believe that such horrors are possible. Distinguished British director Michael Attenborough has chosen his cast carefully, and many of Brisbane’s best actors are here – Eugene Gilfedder as Duncan, no doddery old has-been, but a king lusty in his own power; Andrew Buchanan bringing the audience close to tears when he laments over the butchery of  all his pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop; Thomas Larkin as Duncan’s heir Malcolm, wisely counting discretion as the better part of valour and fleeing to Scotland to bide his time; a very impressive performance from Tama Matheson as the bloodied Banquo; and Jason Klarwein, artistic director of Grin & Tonic Theatre Troupe, as Macbeth. All these men have the physical stature necessary to persuade us of their military prowess, and all of them have been trained by director Attenborough to articulate clearly and distinctly, not running away from the text as so many young actors do, but showing us that they understand what they are saying.
And that helps tremendously for audiences who are new to the play, of whom there were many in the matinee performance I deliberately attended. To keep 500 cynical, giggling secondary students quiet for over two hours is a big test, and this production passed it with flying colours – only one burst of laughter, quite appropriately, at the Porter’s dick joke; and one less appropriate at the conclusion of one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen on stage (Nigel Poulton as fight director should be congratulated here) when McDuff disposes of Macbeth. But that was laughter of shock rather than hysteria, and as the rest of the audience joined in, it may suggest that perhaps the final seconds of the fight need re-thinking.
But how good are the actors in portraying characters in whom we can believe? On the whole, although none of them was over-inspired or inspiring, they performed very competently. But as the whole show depends on the role of Macbeth, I have reluctantly to admit than Jason Klarwein didn’t quite cut it.  His Macbeth was rather too stolid, not showing enough of the knife-edge tension and the moral ambiguity that is written into the character. We didn’t feel the terror and despair that he is meant to feel, and his performance bordered on the one-dimensional. Perhaps it was that he was still over-awed by the responsibility of the role, and I’d like to hope that later in the run he’ll relax more into it.
But that’s just the men. There are, of course, the four central women, in the persons of Lady Macbeth and the three witches. Veronica Neave is one of the most charismatic Lady Macbeths I’ve ever seen, playing her not as a hard-hearted shrew with not an ounce of tenderness in her, but as a woman obsessed with ambition for her husband rather than for herself. She displayed the passion that Klarwein couldn’t as Macbeth, and she was also a young and beautiful woman, with a sexuality that is often underplayed in other productions.
And so to the three witches, who in our own cynical age are always problematic. Attenborough has eschewed the convention of making them hideous old hags, but what he has done may not please everyone. People I spoke to were fairly equally split between approval and disapproval of the three women as culturally fashionable fantasy stereotypes like apparitions from the Black Lagoon, or The Walking Dead, or even as figments of Macbeth’s own twisted sexual desires. Their movements are choreographed by Nerida Matthaei with almost Aboriginal-like gestures, which for me didn’t work. I still prefer Polanski’s 1971 filmed version where they are fat naked hags in a cave but, as I said, they’re always difficult to portray, so I wouldn’t dare suggest that Attenborough’s vision is wrong. It is, after all, their words that matter, some of the most suggestive and enigmatic language Shakespeare ever employed, so I’m happy to leave it at that.
The acoustics were something of a problem, as they often are at the Playhouse. That huge set seemed to suck up the voices, and as characters moved to the back of the stage, they could be heard less and less clearly. And Veronica Neave almost needed miking – we were in Row I, but if I hadn’t known the play backwards I wouldn’t have understood half of what she was saying, no matter how convincingly she said it, and some people in the circle said they couldn’t hear a word she said. You need a big voice to fill this theatre, and perhaps directors and set designers need to pay more attention to the sound of the play, rather than the fury.
It’s a very impressive production, though, and if some of the local actors aren’t quite up to the vision of director Michael Attenborough, who is furthering his own solid reputation with his first Macbeth, it’s better than many of the other attempts at Shakespeare we’ve seen in the last few years. Go and see it, if for the technical excellence alone, but always for the play, a mighty piece of work with deeply discomforting things to say.
[box]Macbeth is at the Playhouse, QPAC until 13 April. Tickets are available at[/box]

2 responses to “Macbeth review (QPAC, Brisbane)

  1. Set brilliant, an iconic story let down by the worst acting that at times I can only describe as wooden. I couldn’t wait to see Lady Macbeth, she was absolutely dreadful, I almost did not go back in after the interval. British accents as we all know are not essential in Shakespearean plays, as his themes are universal and timeless, however proper diction is. I have to say in all honestly I have seen far superior Shakespeare performances from High School Students. Seriously these actors are professional?

  2. Saw Macbeth at QPAC last night, April 11. Unfortunately, I agree with Meg – great set and sound, but full of ham acting and lazy diction that would have been more appropriate on “Home and Away”. The plan seemed to be: the person required to say something would pretend to “act” and everyone else on stage would freeze awkwardly until it was their turn to speak or exit. Speaking of which – there were way too many clunky entries and exits. My abiding memory of the evening is watching the cast endlessly stamp on and off stage. Lady Macbeth was good occasionally, as was Banquo but Macbeth himself – never have I heard the wonderful “Walking Shadow” speech uttered so perfunctorily. Oh, and unlike everyone else, the three witches seemed to have been meticulously directed. Perhaps Attenborough got bored after showing them what to do, and wandered off, leaving the cast to try to work things out for themselves.

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