Not for nothing do actors talk about the Macbeth curse and refer to the play as ‘the Scottish tragedy’ as if the horror of it were unspeakable. Peter O’Toole failed in the role, and 50 years ago in Melbourne Frank Thring was so terrible in the part that he quaked to go on. Yes, Olivier triumphed in it with Vivien Leigh as his evil lady (though J. Arthur Rank robbed posterity of the performance by refusing to bankroll the film version), Ian McKellen was superb with Judi Dench (you can get the DVD), Sean Connery said he learned to play James Bond by playing Macbeth in Scotland and his characterisation of the tragic villain who licenses himself to kill was also seen on American television with Australia’s Zoe Caldwell as the would-be fiend-like queen who proves human enough to crack up.
Then there are the natural disasters. Keith Michell (the great BBC Henry VIII) told me that, when he was playing his nemesis, Olivier almost blinded him with the ferocity of his sword play after he said ‘Lay on, Macduff.’ Jean-Pierre Mignon in his Anthill days saw a local council close down his Macbeth with Robert Menzies in the title role just before opening because the disused fire station he’d chosen as his evocative setting was itself a fire hazard. A few days later it opened. Some time down the track it did burn down.
In the lurid light of all this, what possessed the Bell Shakespeare Company to cast Dan Spielman (an actor who would be challenged by the role of Malcolm) to play one of the most hellishly difficult parts in the classical repertoire? He is consistently out of his depth, wooden and tuneless, like a man who hears no music, gamely though he tries to clutch at feeling like an airborne dagger. The production is not helped by a ditzily self-indulgent Lady Macbeth from Kate Mulvany, whom director Peter Evans allows to indulge in various idiot and vulgar interpretative choices and whose technique (though not its application) is several notches up from Spielman’s. It’s fortunate that Lizzie Schebesta, who appears as the inexplicably solitary witch, and most of the other significant figures in the cast from Fleance, Banquo’s fugitive son — but why is he transformed into an underaged ‘fuck baby’ for Macbeth and his father to cavort with? — to Macduff junior, is remarkably easy on the eyes. But it is indicative of the tremendous category mistake this production represents that it should indulge in random eye candy as a kind of errant structural principle. Peter Evans’ production would bring no honour to the fringe.
Coming from a would-be major classical company which is supposed to specialise in Shakespeare, it is bogglingly inadequate.
The direction has a certain freewheeling, ring-a-ring-a-roses visual variety that makes it low-level watchable, but its flimsy little bits of theatricality hardly hide the fact that at its core this is a Macbeth signifying nothing. It doesn’t help that the Scottish warlords are dressed in aqua uniforms that make them look like the camper variety of hotel commissionaires or airline stewards, nor that Anna Cordingley’s design gives the action a garden setting. But these are the least of its problems.
During the duller stretches of the play which, like Banquo’s descendants, seemed to stretch out to the edge of doom, I kept thinking of the people I wished I was watching instead: how Dion Mills and Kat Stewart at Red Stitch, with a stage no bigger than a bloody handkerchief, might make this play flame into life, and how Nadia Tass as director would get its stifling darkness and its sense of the spirit regnant in the face of perdition and never draw attention to what she was doing. Oh, and beyond that the mind dreams of Mel Gibson being reunited with Judy Davis (the one time NIDA Romeo and Juliet in the Macbeths’ marriage from hell). Or you could wish you were watching John Stanton and Helen Morse reciting the words by lightning flashes in a pub or a barn.
Fortunately there was the audience. How can Bill Shorten dare to attend a first night performance of this most famous of all plays about political assassination? When someone asked who his Lady Macbeth would be, it was impossible not to be reminded that the role is immemorially associated with red hair (though not, Lord save us, with the moving forward of monotonous strine). But the attendant lords of politics were everywhere to be seen. From Gareth Evans, who told Hawke to go because the dingoes were pissing on his swag, to young Kelly O’Dwyer, who served Peter Costello during all those years he was the Great Pretender but would not bear the knife himself. Former Coalition education minister Rod Kemp, who was all for the teaching of works like this, was also in attendance.
The veteran Colin Moody plays King Duncan in sinister overlord fashion looking like a king asking for killing, and for a moment the air is alive with the voice of an actor who can sound the heights and depths of Shakespeare’s verse. It’s not a winning characterisation — he was better as the King some years back to Brendan Cowell’s hapless Hamlet — but it at least testifies to technique.
Poor Dan Spielman has none. He plays Macbeth like a man gesticulating into the void of his own inability to encompass the smallest fraction of the range of suggestions in the language. The performance would actually be better (not good) if it were presented in prose paraphrase via a modern translation from a foreign language. Not only does Spielman lack the necessary weight and authority but whatever vaulting ambition there may be in his conception — which appears to be that of a flat-voiced suburban ocker Raskolnikov — he is incapable of inhabiting the role physically or verbally.
Kate Mulvany’s Lady Macbeth has a potential, if small-scale, verbal authority. She can screech a bit and mime a bit, and she more or less knows what blank verse should sound like, but this is the performance of a vain actress with minor skills, diminished by her impoverished conception of the role.
After she says — in what is, let us remember, one of the most staggering scenes Shakespeare ever wrote — ‘That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’, she proceeds to hiccup not once or twice but repeatedly in order to indicate — inanely — that Lady Macbeth has not just had a stiff drink but is pissed off her head. This is cognate with a ludicrously misjudged sleepwalking scene in which she glows with zany and triumphant glee.
No wonder this production had the gorgeous young girl a seat or two up from us giggling her pretty little blonde head off. One could only hope she was stoned and having as good a time as she seemed to be at the ridiculousness of it all. It was all this footling, foolish Macbeth deserved.
Macbeth is at the Playhouse in Melbourne until 23 June.Tags: iapps