The cover of the programme for Sydney Theatre Company’s minimalist new Macbeth is as stripped as Birnam Wood will be by the play’s end. There are no words — no title, no byline for the greatest writer in history — just a black-backdropped close-up photograph of Hugo Weaving, as high-domed as Jack Nicholson and maybe just as crazy.
It’s a presentation that says this is Hugo Weaving’s Macbeth, and no one who sees this innovative, intelligent and thrilling production could accuse the promoters of false advertising. Weaving may not have been born to play the Scottish kingslayer but at 54 he’s certainly grown big enough for the role.
In the opening scenes, where we hear of the Thane of Glamis’s battlefield deeds, Weaving sits off to the side, luring the eye in hulking silence. Finally he delivers his opening line on the bewitched heath — ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ — and from that paradoxical and melancholy moment we are bound to this violent, confused and frightened man. It is a performance of utter psychological complexity: Weaving has thought hard about this terrible and largely inexplicable character and the result is an interpretation full of insight and humanity.
That Weaving commands this show is no slight to all else involved. He is a bona fide movie star and to our good fortune his present interests are the theatre and small-scale Australian films. For good recent examples of his work in the latter, see The Turning and Mystery Road.
Director Kip Williams has taken some risks which by and large pay off. The most dramatic is an inversion of the Sydney Theatre space: the audience is seated on the stage — where there is room for only 360 — and the action unfolds against the disconcerting emptiness of the 900-seat auditorium. Boldy, Williams rarely uses this vacated space. Banquo is murdered there; Macduff learns of the slaughter of his family — but mainly it remains unoccupied, an effect that illuminates Macbeth’s desperate isolation. As an aside, it’s worth noting the play runs for two hours with no interval and there’s no chance of leaving — so it would be wise to go easy on the pre-show drinks.
But to the thing of the play itself. The tricky business of Macbeth’s climactic showdown with Macduff — the result of which is only reported in the text — is brilliantly done, with a broadsword-wielding Weaving alone and exhausted on the strobe-lit stage. That he fights no one incisively reminds us that Macbeth’s biggest battle is with himself. The chaotic night of the regicide also is superbly evoked: the stage fills with blinding white smoke as Duncan (John Gaden) is despatched ‘to heaven, or to hell’. So is the banquet scene in which a truly terrified Macbeth sees the ghost of noble Banquo. The lighting (Nick Schlieper, lighting designer) and sound (Max Lyandvert, composer and sound designer) in these crucial scenes deserves particular mention.
Weaving’s sonorous delivery makes every line count. The combination of the authority of his voice and his imposing physical presence charges even relatively minor speeches, such as when he walks almost into the audience to muse darkly about young Malcolm: ‘Stars hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.’
The small cast — only eight actors — necessitates a lot of doubling, which is not my favourite thing. I suspect people who do not know the play well may find it confusing at times. And while I have no problem in general with women playing male characters this is a play with questions of manhood at its core and I did have some difficulties with Paula Arundell as Banquo and Kate Box as Macduff. I accept that their femininity can be seen as emblematic of the civil and political order Macbeth is slashing and burning — but then I wonder just how orderly things were anyway. Isn’t the world of Macbeth short and brutish — and dominated by brutes — from the outset? Here the contemporary dress (the actors might have come straight from an inner urban pub) also jarred my eye. Macduff in skinny jeans and a scoop neck T-shirt stretches the imagination to accept a line such as ‘Of all men else I have avoided thee’.
Which brings us to Melita Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth, the woman who goads and humiliates her husband into murder. She does so with cold calculation, prodding a unhealable wound in their lives: ‘I have given suck, and know how tender it is to love the babe that milks me…’ But that is not the Lady Macbeth of this production. Here we have a woman who seems mad from the get go. Jurisic inhabits that role convincingly, but it’s an interpretation that limits and reduces the play’s second most important character.
This is a Macbeth that starts a bit slowly and builds powerfully. As Weaving has said, it ‘moves like the clappers’. Director Williams guides this runaway freight train of a play with great art and skill. The star himself may have found the role of a lifetime (though I’d also love to see him as Coriolanus). I’m sure it’s not as lucrative as being a big elf in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth but I wager it’s a lot more satisfying.