Macbeth (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
Fringe Brisbane Hub
November 11 – 27
“Blood will have blood,” a haunted Macbeth proclaims in Act III of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, knowing that he will have to suffer for his actions. Blood not only represents guilt for Macbeth and his Lady, but is a constant presence as one of the play’s primary motifs. While there is no visual bloodshed in Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s darkest tragedies, there is no doubting the disturbance of its storyline or resonance of its themes around loyalty, fate and other such weighty subjects. The production is still full of the violence that is such a big part of “Macbeth” and Shakespeare in general; even just allusion to the repercussions of regicide, the murders of men, women and children, suicide and wartime battle serves as a reminder that its every violent act leads inevitably to the next. And the company’s focus, instead, on the linguistic richness of the text, only adds to the intrigue and tension of the storytelling.
There may be no blood, or air-drawn dagger of the mind, but there is the ghost of Macbeth’s brave and noble best friend to plague the Thane’s guilt-ridden thoughts, and also the otherly witches to remind audiences of the darkness of the supernatural tones so integral to its Jacobean context. From their first appearance in the savage play’s opening scene where they grow out of a storm in plan to meet the triumphant warrior Macbeth after battle, the weird sisters (Crystal Arons, Leah Mustard and Ellen Hardisty, who projects a particular eeriness in her chanting tones) beguile us they speak and move in complement, soon telling in the song-like rhythm of rhyming couplets, of their hail of Macbeth (QSE’s Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini) as predicted Thane of Glamis, Cawdor and Scottish King hereafter.
The magic, murder and mayhem continues from this mysterious scene and despite some sudden lighting cues, shadows are used well to emphasise, as much as establish, mood, such as in Lady Macbeth’s (Rebecca Murphy) Act One soliloquies, when, in response to hearing in letter of Macbeth’s promotion to the Thaneship of Cawdor and detail of his meeting with the witches, she resolves to convince her husband to do whatever is required to realise his vaulting ambition and seize the crown from the visiting respected King Duncan (a fittingly authoritarian Mikala Crawley).
Attention to detail is evident throughout the production. Costumes are textured with feathers, leather and layering, and are themed in colour and patterned accents… Duncan and his eldest son Malcolm (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) in gold and the Macbeths in maroon until the gold garments are also usurped. And just as Macbeth is referred to only as tyrant after the climatic banquet scene (interestingly appearing immediately after interval), we no longer spot him in regal robes from this point.
Care is also taken to ensure that characterisastion does not compromise the high thematic stakes. The Macbeths that Pensalfini and Murphy enliven are multifaceted, showing shades of being both a power-hungry warrior and Machiavellian murderess and also grief-stricken parents with a painful void to fill. And the phases of their respective character journeys are clearly defined. Pensalfini uses the non-verbals of widened eyes of disbelief as he methodically considers the supernatural soliciting of the initial prophecies of the instruments of darkness, contemplating the appeal of the prospect of power, rather than its promise. It is a wonderful initial insight into Macbeth’s inner thoughts that is emphasised by his then commanding stage presence in the character’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ contemplation of what he should do and then frenzied rather than considered response to the sudden appearance of a spectral dagger as potential marshal towards murder. And his delivery of Macbeth’s poignant final soliloquy’s reflection of life’s lack of meaning is a heartfelt and thus moving contemplation.
Pensalfini and Murphy both clearly have a natural grasp of Shakespearean language, delivering their dialogue as if it was modern English, complete with meaningful emphasis and emotional undertones. This works well, especially against the relatively stark staging of the Fringe Brisbane Hub’s intimate pop-up space, to bring audience members into the action. Murphy’s Lady Macbeth is also finessed by the contrast of her character arc. She begins by giving us a formidable character that serves as reminder of how without his fierce female characters, Shakespeare is nothing. Her ruthless, in-control provocation to have Macbeth commit treason, is beautifully contrasted with her later appearances when increasingly consumed by madness.
Angus Thorbuns is powerful in his performance as Macbeth’s foil, the passionately-patriotic Thane of Fife, Macduff and although Macduff’s cousin Ross is a minor character in the play, Rebekah Schmidt brings a gravitas to his messenger role. Joanne Booth does double duty (and deaths) as Lady Macduff and Banquo. As the loyal and protective Lady, furious at her husband for fleeing the country for England to urge rightful-heir Malcolm to retake the Scottish throne by force, she contributes to the particularly strong scene of her character’s only appearance. The brutal scene is often cut in modern performance, however, is important for its illustration of the depths of Macbeth’s butcherous depravity, and its inclusion not only achieves this, but serves as a testament to the ensemble skills.
Director Angela Witcher gives audiences a relatively straightforward production of “Macbeth”; Shakespeare’s language is delivered with clarity, which aids understanding, while the plotting is also clear. This is, surprisingly, the first time that a staged production of “Macbeth” doth come to Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble and the company’s presentation of the dark psychological thriller not only reminds audiences as to the robustness of its story, but does so in a way that makes it accessible even to those without detailed familiarity with the original text.
Although “Macbeth” is already a tight play by Shakespeare standards, plot edges have been trimmed with the elimination of, for example, younger son of King Duncan, Donalbain. Drama and action are not, however, compromised, as is evidently clear in its final impressive physical battle, vigorous sword-fight and all. And the humour of Tenielle Plunkett’s comic-relief porter scene has a modern touch that is appreciated by the responsive opening night audience, which serves as a good reminder of how this classic of the canon of English literature still holds so much for so many interpretations.
Photos c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography