This is one of those evolving shows that the further into its season you see it the more fortunate you will probably be because by all accounts, the show I saw last week (and yes, it still feels like I’m sitting in a very crowded economy class flight) is not the show people saw when it opened.
There’s something to be said for director Kip Williams if he is taking feedback on board and constantly tweaking this show. It tells me that he is not precious about criticism and is open to the possibilities of how this show might theatrically be stronger and better. Of course, the idea that if I paid $80+ to see this show and it’s still a work in progress and I saw it long before it had cohesive working parts then I don’t know that I’d feel happy about it either. From what I understand, it doesn’t have a final working script over two weeks into its season, which is still being slashed each week, and they’ve expanded the use of the auditorium in the play’s action much more than in previews.
So the question is- why is still undergoing significant work now it’s ‘live’? I think the answer lies in its concept. Williams seems to have decided on the concept of having the audience view a play from the stage, staring out into the empty cavernous space of the Sydney Theatre before he actually decided on the play. As a result, when you try to fit the play into the concept, you’re kind of working backwards and can struggle to make all the pieces form the whole. Williams’ ‘Macbeth’ is not quite whole yet but there are some really good things happening in this play at this stage and on this stage.
The first thirty minutes is hard going. It’s static and slow and adjusting to the Poor Theatre elements of a Grotowski-inspired vision with a dose of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty takes a bit of time. The first impulse is to giggle at images of the witches sticking their heads in buckets of water and then towel-drying off to play other characters or chucking a cup of blood over yourself as you are slain and there was definitely snickering when the apparitions hit themselves with bread rolls. But at least I could distract myself with the workings of the stage before I was genuinely distracted by the woman in the second row who was pulling out her phone to take pictures of Hugo Weaving (Macbeth).
And then they killed Duncan (John Gaden) and, as bizarre and ironic as it sounds, the play came to life. The emptiness and stillness of the first Act was replaced by the spectacle and flourish of action, heightened by blinding fog and voices in the murky soup of the stage. The highlight came for me when Banquo’s (Paula Arundell) ghost sits at Macbeth’s table. Weaving’s breakdown as Macbeth was raw and confronting and it was there the intimacy of the contrived staging was a piece of magic.
Williams’ seems to have stripped ‘Macbeth’ of any humour. This version is dark and ghostly. It’s like watching a dream sequence. There’s something ethereal and ephemeral about it unfolding right in front of you, moving past you and yet, you’re not there. You are the empty seats, sometimes filled with the players (who is audience and who are we in this play?) and then they and we are gone. His vision encapsulates the temporal experience of theatre and we are at the heart of it in this experiment with proxemics.
There are times when the artifice is obvious but once you buy the vision that we are seated in the workings of the stage, amongst its trappings and mechanics, you give in to it. Williams is not after belief. He is more interested in the theatricality. So the gender-blind-casting of women to traditional male roles of Banquo and Macduff (Kate Box) is not an issue and feels almost natural in this ‘unnatural world’. The raining tinsel, the white face paint, the multi-purpose props, the dressing of Malcolm (Eden Falk), the apparitions, the assault of ominous creaks and mechanical groans from composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert, the shifts of lights from us to the ‘audience’ from Nick Schlieper and Alice Babidge’s design as we move from emptiness to opulence to downright mess before stripping the stage again- all serve to remind us that we are watching the artifice of art. We have been made a player in its action and there is some very fine acting happening on stage to complement the vision.
I’m not sure the expense of taking a 1000 seat classic proscenium arch theatre and then putting a miniscule amount of audience on the stage to sit with the actors as they play out ‘Macbeth’ for you can be thoroughly justified and I’m not sure if the experience could not have been achieved by just staging it in Wharf 2 but I still enjoyed it. Contrived and perhaps unjustified it may be but it was an experience that left me intrigued.