Wicked ways cometh by candlelight

Macbeth in the Dark (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Shakespeare’s notorious Scottish play is bloody business. The vital fluid is a motif that appears often in the stage play to emphasise guilt due to the cruelty of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s crimes. So how does “Macbeth” fare without this as a visual? Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Macbeth in the Dark” radio play version of the psychological tragedy (available on a pay-what-you-can basis via the company’s website) illustrates how the legacy of the Bard’s words is, in fact, more than sufficient to fill the visual void.  

The full length production with a running time of 120 minutes is an ambitious project that brings together a cast of ten actors playing over 25 different characters, original music, and the sound engineering wizardry of Dom Guilfoyle, under the direction of Kate Wilson. The use of sound creates a rich atmosphere for one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays. Indeed, the radio drama format builds its impression of the world of medieval Scotland by manipulating sound in companion with the suggested experience of listening in the dark, or at least by candlelight or in low lighting.

A supernatural soundscape enhances key scenes, with marker to the sinister appearance of mysterious and other-worldly aspects such the foreshadowing sounds of scavenger birds and foreboding noises of night’s dark cover, however, a sound bed under Macbeth’s (Rob Pensalfini) ‘is this a dagger?’ fatal vision suggestion of the horrid deed of regicide he is about to commit, detracts somewhat from the impact of his first soliloquised words.

The greatest clarity comes from one of the most notorious women in theatre as the ruthless Lady Macbeth (Rebecca Murphy) calmly reassures her husband’s rambling concerns about having murdered sleep by killing the gracious visiting King Duncan (Tom Coyle). In the early acts, she speaks clearly with a confidence befitting her noble hostess character’s accusatory and mocking manipulation and then urge to her husband to be the serpent under the innocent flower in order to realise his vaulting ambition. Appropriately, this turns into profound torment as later in the play she is plagued by guilty realisation that what’s done cannot be undone.

The play’s titular tragic hero speaks with conviction in determination to enact the scorpions of his mind to murder his dear, valiant friend Banquo (Angus Thorburn) lest the prophecies about his lineage reveal themselves to be true, which transforms easily into paranoia as he is haunted by the vision of his ghost as a banquet guest. Pensalfini also captures Macbeth’s changing psychological states and emotions, from his curiosity, amazement and tyrannous confidence in reaction to his misinterpretation of Act IV’s apparitions which tell of his apparent future invincibility, to his poignant final soliloquy’s contemplation of life’s lack of meaning. However, there is little tenderness to be taken from even the early scenes shared by the couple, which detracts from the isolation of the separate madnesses of the characters in the second half of the play.

With the power of prophecy, the witches (Ellen Hardisty, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn and Liliana Macarone), meanwhile, speak with song-like rhythm in their rhyming couplet foresee of the future, producing a trance-like cacophony of sound the creates a haunting sense of ancient world magic. While it is disappointing not to hear the usual comic relief used in the scene with the Porter telling Macduff of the three things drink provokes, to break the tension, the company brings new depth to this classic, chilling tale of malevolence and terror. For example, the cries of Lady Macduff’s baby in the background make the climactic scene in which she and her son are murdered on Macbeth’s orders, especially shocking.

A radio play audience relies on actors’ voices and sound effects to comprehend the action; QSE does well with these conventions, which makes for an intellectual version of play in which performers not only deliver the verse with clarity and clearly understand what is being said, but appear to really feel the emotional intent of its dialogue. Unlike so many versions of this bloody tragedy, full of sound and fury, a radio play such as this allows a focus on dialogue and appreciation of the abundance of its phrases that now hold place in our vernacular. Without signposts as to changed scenes, familiarity with story and its characters is an advantage as, without any narration, it may be difficult to establish speaker identities and scene changes. While the poetic richness of Shakespeare’s language is enhanced through this solely-spoken genre, the soft-spoken nature of some of its dialogue delivery means that it is probably best experienced through headphones, in order to truly appreciate the new depths of anguish that the company bring to the tortured tale of Macbeth and his Lady.

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