The South Australian Theatre Company‘s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Geordie Brookman, has some truly terrific moments, and some not so terrific moments. Set in a ‘wasteland’ of an abandoned and derelict modern basement, reminiscent of the set for the horror film classic Saw, the play begins with Lady Macbeth giving birth to a featureless child. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin with the opening lines of the 1st and 2nd Witch in Shakespeare’s play, and then the psychic lines of the 3rd Witch (and the rest) are taken over by the child. ‘When shall we three meet again’, the opening line of the play is teased out to involve and include this unholy threesome of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and their demon child who remains on-stage throughout the rest of the drama and is instrumental in all the subsequent bloody deaths.
It was like watching a contemporary Spanish horror film, like Mama; indeed, I kept thinking that this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was very much like Saw meets Mama. Nonetheless, from an academic point of view this interpretation attempts to address one of the most important questions posed in regards to Macbeth by Shakespeare scholar L. C. Knight in his seminal essay How many children had Lady Macbeth? (1933). Lady Macbeth states that ‘she has given suck’, in other words had a child, but this child does not appear or is ever mentioned again in the play – a mystery. In this production, however, the mystery is interpreted in rather an interesting way. When Lady Macbeth delivers this line to Macbeth it hits home and Macbeth is emotionally weakened. This particular interpretation, of the Macbeth’s being somehow haunted by their demon child, may be a distortion of Shakespeare’s original play – but it was interesting nonetheless. Furthermore, distortion has always been a factor in the story of Macbeth.
The play was probably first performed by the King’s Men in 1606 with Richard Burbage as Macbeth. The play’s subject matter, themes, location and characters were deliberately chosen to please the King’s Men’s new patron, James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland and now, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I of England. Furthermore, not only was James a descendant of Banquo, but James had also published a book on witchcraft. These elements in the play are more aligned with the King’s Men appeasing and playing to the known tastes and predilections of their new royal patron than the actual truth of Macbeth. Shakespeare may have read about Macbeth in Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles but the story Shakespeare tells is far from the truth.
Macbeth, King of the Scots, ruled from 1040-1057. Macbeth was Lord of Moray, a part of modern day Scotland, whose troops killed King Duncan I of Alba (Scotland), when Duncan invaded Moray. Subsequently, Macbeth became King. He was married to Grunoch, wife of the previous Lord of Moray (who he may have killed), and they had no children. Macbeth ruled Alba peacefully for 17 years. From 1054-57 he was faced with invading armies from England, and was eventually killed in the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057 by troops loyal to Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who became King Malcolm III in 1058. Macbeth was buried on the mystical (and ghostly green) island of Iona, the traditional burial place for the Kings of Scotland. You can visit his supposed grave on Iona – and I would encourage you to do so as Iona is truly wonderful.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been one his most consistently performed plays over the past 400-odd years. All the great theatre actors and actresses have tackled the challenging roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with varying degrees of success. Macbeth has also been adapted for film numerous times, the most successful version being Akira Kurosawa’s extraordinary Throne of Blood (1957). I don’t know how many productions of Macbeth I have seen – but it is quite a few; the best being the famous Trevor Nunn RSC production with Judi Dench and Ian McKellan in the late 1970s, with an equally exceptional supporting cast, and on a relatively bare stage in a small intimate theatre. Brilliant!!! However, in many ways it has spoilt seeing other productions; ‘comparisons are odious’ (Shakespeare), but nonetheless when one does see greatness in the theatre it is unforgettable.
There is a touch of greatness in this current SATC production – the actor Peter Carroll who plays Duncan, as well as the Porter. Peter Carroll is a bit of an Australian acting legend with a truly remarkable career. His Duncan is dignified and touching. His Porter is sheer brilliance – the best I have ever seen. Usually one smiles agreeably at the Porter and his obscure jokes; a bit of sardonic light relief after the murder of Duncan. Here, however, Peter Carroll gets a laugh out of every single line in the Porter’s speech about ‘equivocation’ and welcoming the audience to hell. He was hilarious and completely deserving the round of spontaneous applause at the end of this brief scene. If you are a Shakespeare nut, like myself, it may be worth the price of admission to see this terrific performance.
Geordie Brookman is a clever director with a keen academic mind and a wonderful theatrical sensibility. There is, however, a relative inconsistency that is discernable at times in his direction of actors. When it does all come together, such as in the ‘apparition scene’ in this production of Macbeth the results are thrilling. Part of the problem of inconsistency in this production lays with the direction of virtually all the male characters as passive-aggressives. The generalised bleating emotional tone of ‘Feel sorry for me’ dominates the performances, with the occasional flashes of choleric anger. This is often in opposition to the text. For example, the scene in which Macbeth seduces the two men to murder Banquo. Macbeth actually says that he is ‘making love’ to them; there wasn’t much love going on here. The worst example was unfortunately my favourite scene in the play, Act 4.3 between Malcolm, Macduff and Ross. The Machiavellian complexity of this dynamic scene was completely overwhelmed by excessive emotion from the very start, with Malcolm and Macduff basically just shouting at each other. Subsequently when Macduff hears from Ross that his whole family has been slaughtered, which is the actually emotional release of the scene, you felt nothing. The passive-aggressive dominant tone, particularly from Macduff from the very beginning, robbed the characters of any true dynamic strength. I’m not sure Shakespeare intended us to sentimentally ‘like’ or ‘understand’ these characters as modern sensibilities tend to dictate. These are not necessarily likable characters, and their dynamic power is reduced by generalised sentimentality and continual emotional bleating.
Maybe it had something to do with the overall pace of the production. Scenes and speeches that should be delivered ‘trippingly on the tongue’ (i.e. quickly) were slow, whilst others were rushed, such as the Malcolm, Macduff and Ross scene that is deliberately placed to slow the pace down before the final climax. Furthermore, theatrical affectation occasionally takes over, such as when Ross, played by a woman, dressed and acted as a ‘whining schoolboy’, steps forward and suddenly vomits on stage when told of the murder of Duncan. Why? Another issue involving the character of Ross, who is a continual presence throughout the play, is that in this production he/she takes over the role and fate of Young Siward and is slain by Macbeth, adding to the ghosts who haunt the stage. Finally, there are the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that also happen on stage, but are not in the original play. These deaths are, however, understandable in light of the overall production and interpretation, being directed by the demon child. Nonetheless, they are a distortion. Significantly, although not necessarily theatrically acknowledged, the roles that Shakespeare wrote for Richard Burbage that climax with a battle, such as Richard III and Macbeth (both regicides), the character is actually killed off-stage. This may suggest a kind of vanity on Burbage’s side in that being a master-swordsman he didn’t wish to be seen as defeated in a one-on-one fight with an opponent.
In conclusion I should state that overall I enjoyed and appreciated the performances of Nathan O’Keefe as Macbeth, and particularly Anna Steen’s Lady Macbeth. They both had some electrifying scenes and moments, especially at the beginning of the production. Their final scene together, however, was disappointing, with Macbeth unaccountably sexually groping Lady Macbeth, when it is the emotional, physical and psychological distancing of her that drives her mad. Also – I loved Elena Carapetis dry and modern interpretation of Lady Macduff. She may have perhaps unintentionally got a few laughs, like the dry delivery of ‘Your father’s dead’ to her precocious son, but it was an excellent performance. However, as previously stated, the real triumph of this production was Peter Carroll’s brilliant performance as the Porter. This alone, plus the overall interpretation of the Macbeth’s being haunted by their demon child, is well worth the price of admission.