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.

Ambition anew

Signifying Nothing (Hammond Fleet Productions)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 12 -23

Paul and Lainey Macbeth are double trouble…the ultimate ambitious duo, ruthless and willing to risk everything for more. They are like the Francis and Claire Underwood power-couple of Western Australian public service, moving swiftly from local politics to the state’s premiership. Even Paul’s best friend, Banquo has doubts about Mac and Lainey’s tactics. This is “Signifying Nothing”, playwright and stand-up comedian Greg Fleet’s modern take on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” tragedy of vaulting political ambition, set in the megalomaniac world of Australian politics and featuring transformation of the bloody Scottish tyrant to a foul-mouthed politician with vaulting ambition and a hard drug habit.

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The show is a two-hander, beginning as a husband and wife domestic drama, with all of the other characters later appearing as compliment on screen. Fleet is strong as the arrogant and egomaniacal, but also slyly charismatic, liberal candidate Paul Macbeth, even though the original text’s denser dialogue doesn’t always sit well in his delivery. Nicola Bartlett, meanwhile is both powerful and beguiling as his wife Lainey, ruthlessly manipulative and haunted by grief as she struggles to stay behind the political scenes. In her hands, the protagonist’s lady is more of a vulnerable, tragic heroine than focussed femme fatale. And it works. Her performance is a compelling one of desperation as she breaks down more from ongoing grief than sudden guilt over her primary role in the political machinations which have led to Premier Duncan being scandalised and Banquo brutally murdered. Indeed, the interaction between the two, co-dependently clinging to each other in the parental grief that many had read from the play, conveys an affection that reveals a real humanity behind their house of cards, enabling those familiar with the source material to consider their relationship anew.

Devilish scheming sits alongside comedy, however, as the robust Shakespearean story is morphed with the vibrant life of a Western Australian politician, eager to put aside the personal tragedy of loss of the couple’s son some years earlier in a domestic accident. The result is a compelling combination of high drama and political farce that is very clever in its contemporisation (without loss of key quotes) and Australian contextualisation. Although the expletive-filled Australian vernacular elements of the dialogue are quite delicious …. “Macbeth you dodgy fucker, Macduff is going to fuck you up”, however, it’s juxtaposition with Shakespearean language is sometimes jarring.

Similarly, when the story’s ghosts appear as projected on a screen above the bed, they are anticlimactic in ‘impact’. Otherwise, camera work complements set design, allowing for the intimacy of a marital bedroom, but also big picture moments courtesy of the projected recordings of the ‘munter’ weird sister ‘witches’ as exit-poll vox pop interviewees. Lighting evokes the extreme emotions of the story’s drama towards its ultimate, inevitable futility and a dynamic soundscape excites with song snippets from The Killers, Nick Cave and inventive use of Hilltop Hoods’ ‘The Nosebleed Section’ as integrated soundtrack to a political press conference q and a, representing some of the best few moments of theatre I’ve seen in recent years

“Signifying Nothing” represents a rich rendering of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, that audience members can appreciate with only minimal general knowledge of the literary canon from which it originates. In presentation of the themes of “Macbeth” anew, it illustrates Shakespeare’s capture of the universal human condition and the significance of its timeless theme of the potential consequences of unchecked ambition beyond mere cultural heritage value.

Something very wicked this way comes

Macbeth (The Danger Ensemble)

Queensland Academy for Creative Industries

February 9 – 25

When The Danger Ensemble is involved with a presentation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, you know it is not going to be “Macbeth” as you know it. And given its feature of a sexy Mrs M, “Weekend at Bernie’s” type moment and even a Farnham number in support of its focus on ambition and ‘be your best self’ tagline, their current production certainly proves this to be true.

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This is “Macbeth” at its most hyper-real, featuring many intriguing changes to the original text, including emphasis on the larger-than-life passion between the power-addicted, murderous main couple (Chris Beckey and Elle Mickel) through not just their passionate reunion kiss but their laden physical interactions during conversation.

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Gender-blind casting sees a blithe Princess Malcolm (Cienda McNamara) as heir to the throne of King Duncan, in mercurial juxtaposition to the usually solely dark and dangerous dramatisation of the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power and consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. Yet, seasoned Shakespearean performer Sally McKenzie is sincere and powerful in performance as Macbeth’s foil, the pivotal avenging Thane of Fife, Macduff.

Similarly, in her first major production role, Mickel is strong in her approach to characterisation of the aspirationally-manipulative Lady Macbeth, bringing a fresh complexity to a role usually considered to be of an older woman by presenting her less of a crazed harpy and more of a woman grieving the recent loss on a baby. With Beckey as a solid and compelling titular protagonist, the couple’s central relationship becomes a gripping one that really works well on stage.

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This, however, is a show that is all about its aesthetic, precise in its every detail, down to the glowing green of a cigarette ember. Even the violent visuals are gorgeous and although there is no hand-to-hand combat in Act Five’s culminating confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth, there are interesting ways of representing the battle in its place.

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The QACI theatre’s expansive stage allows for some immense scenes and Act Three’s royal banquet presents a particularly memorable visual image of the Da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ sort. Striking too are early scenes that feature Jack Hutchinson as King Duncan, side of stage, dressed all in white, with Elizabethan ruff, strategising over a table of war figurines while drinking milk as white as the blood which many characters will later be shedding.

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Lasers also add to the Ben Hughes’ lush green lighting and silhouetted images, making the weird sisters’ prophecies unlike any version before seen. The soundscape emphasises the elemental forces that grip Macbeth, resounding the repetition of the hags’ chants, and amplifying the addition of the rarely-seen Witch Queen, Hecate.

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Co-designer Arnavaz Lindsay’s costumes are sumptuous in their rich detail and contrast from imposing ‘winter is coming’ coat to plastic wrapped performers. And music enlivens the narrative with a pumping, at-times familiar soundtrack.

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If the quality of a Shakespeare performance depends on the originality of the production and its new revelations regarding themes and characters, then The Danger Ensemble’s take on “Macbeth” is a work of excellence. Director and Designer Steven Mitchell Wright has created a smouldering celebration of the company’s tenth anniversary with a beautiful, powerful and very wicked production that proves the ongoing resonance of the Bard’s themes in relation to ambition and the corruptible nature of absolute power.

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Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

All Hail Hexagon

Macbeth (Third World Bunfight)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 15 – 19

All hail Macbeth, King hereafter, but not of Scotland, as the General becomes a Congolese warlord in the story’s radical operatic retelling by provocative South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey. Set in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the appropriation of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” features as part of Brisbane Festival’s Congo Connections focus, unashamedly shining a light on the under-reported mineral resources war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has killed millions in the past 20 years. And unfortunately, transporting the story originally set in 11th Century Scotland, to the modern troubled country is a perfect fit, given its themes of greed and tyranny.

The recreation of the story begins and ends with a group of Congolese refuges describing the horrors of what has happened to their country. This comes after they have stumbled upon a trunk filled with 1935 tour artefacts of sheet music, costumes and gramophone recordings of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, which become the beginnings of a dramatic retelling of Shakespeare’s tale, with the Macbeths as warlords and the three witches as double-crossing, corrupt businessmen of the Hexagon Corporation, who represent one of the primary causes of the continuing crisis in the Congo where the extreme mineral wealth of the region is battled over by militia who tax citizens and force them to work in the mines at gunpoint, enacting massacres and rapes to assert power. Given their ability to manufacture more than predict the future, the greedy group represents the supernatural element of the original text (with hex representing the Dutch word for witch).

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Key lines of the original text are still present, however, they are mixed with profanities of exclamation to sight to Banquo’s ghost. And when, for example, the nature of Macbeth’s WTF text to his wife after his initial encounter with the trio of prophets is shared as projection, it provides some welcome humour within the dark tale. Along with the sometimes conversational tones and vocabulary of corporate businessmen, it also serves to give the work an accessibility beyond traditional opera. The show’s projections make for quite the vibrant visual feast of often hyper-real African print patterns and messages to complement on-stage action, but also serve as solution to the dead Banquo dilemma that will always plague productions.

Adapted by Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol (who also collaborated on Congolese baroque music theatre work “Coup Fatal”) this is a stripped-back version of Verdi’s opera, first staged in 1847, running at a more affable 100 minutes, reorchestrated from 65 musicians and 45 singers to no more than a dozen of each and featuring focus mainly on the Macbeths. Opera is, of course, primarily about music and although fast-paced in its modernity, this is also a sometimes-serene chamber piece that maintains the beauty of the Verdi score. The performance of the onstage trans-Balkan No Borders Orchestra, is one of stirring restraint, often ebbing and flowing in contrast to its tragic tale of blood-lust fantasy, particularly as evident through its energetic violins.

Soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza, who plays Lady Macbeth fills the role with many emotions, often simultaneously, creating an engaging performance to complement her extraordinary voice.  As she transforms from laundrette washer-woman into materialistic first-lady, complete with haute couture costuming, she also provides some light-hearted moments as the director teases out every nuance of her problematic relationship with the General.

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Lyric baritone Owen Metsileng, who plays Commander Macbeth, the despotic, bloodthirsty militia man (complete with clenched fist headwear) maintains the menace of the physically-strong but mentally-weak character throughout, bringing a pivotal naïve villainy to every aspect of his performance, particularly as he sits imposingly centre-stage almost looking over his eyeballs with an Idi-Armin-like intimidation, even though he is in essence a mere puppet of the Hexagon Corporation’s politics. Together the power couple share the limelight with a range of fine singers in a highly stylised performance in which everyone sings in Italian (with subtitles in English).

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Positioning the classic work against the shattered country context of post-colonial Africa serves as only one ingredient in this “Macbeth” mix. What makes it the theatrical triumph that has garnered its five star reviews in tour across the globe is the completeness of its aesthetic experience, which is rich in colour and emotion, and complete with even a glittering mirror ball.

Brisfest brightenment and enlightenment

It was difficult not to think pink in the vicinity of the CBD’s George Street when a massive marquee took over Queen’s Park as host to celebration of 2015’s Brisbane Festival launch. With Principal Partner, Treasury Casino and Hotel also lit up for the occasion, the excitement was mind-blowing (to take the festival’s tagline.)

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Although the festival is Australia’s youngest international arts festival, its growth in audience attendance and program size since it was made an annual event in 2009, affirms its role in connecting artists and audiences through attracting world class entertainment. And in his inaugural year as festival director, David Berthold is certainly bringing the world to Brisbane from September 5 – 26, first and foremost through the drawing together of four shows umbrella-ed as ‘Congo Connections, showcasing the power, politics and personality of the unique African nation. These include “Coup Fatal”, which will see Congolese Countertenor Serge Kakudji joining 12 musicians to refashion some of the greats of baroque music with pop, rock and jazz, and also “Macbeth”, a thrilling showcase of Verdi’s operatic version set in the Congo.

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The provocative programming continues with “Flexn”, a piece created by Brooklyn hip-hop pioneers of the relatively new dance from flex, which opened only months ago in New York City. Infused as it is with the unrest following the extreme circumstances in the US in aftermath of police shootings of unarmed black suspects, the piece is sure to stir as well as reflect deep resonance with our own national narrative. And to have it playing almost alongside “Beautiful One Day” is quite the coup, for this acclaimed theatrical documentary promises to be a gripping look at the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in police custody on Palm Island and the subsequent aftermath uprisings, even more so by its inclusion of Palm Island residents (including Doomadgee’s niece).

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Then there is also “Hot Brown Honey”, a cabaret of less drama but just as much political passion, returning in an explosion of colour, culture and controversy to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts to serve up some comedy, circus, striptease, song, dance and poetry while smashing a few stereotypes along the way.

There is similar promise of stereotype shattering in W!ld Rice’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, as part of the festival’s Singapore Series to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. The gender-bending play, which features an all-male cast (no drag) has been a huge hit in Singapore, despite homosexuality being illegal there, and promises the joy of Wilde’s wit, with a twist.

Brisbane Festival is Brisbane’s biggest party, vibrant, lively and unique. And September 2015 promises to build upon this with events for cabaret connoisseurs, circus lovers and a music enthusiasts featuring alongside its thought-provoking and politically charged works, to ‘brighten and enlightened the world with mix of the merry and the meaty’, Berthold described it, for amongst the big subjects and serious conversations, there is also promise of some sure fun.

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The creators of “La Soiree” are returning to the Spiegeltent with “Club Swizzle”, which promises to be just as debaucherously sassy as its circus cabaret forerunner. “Thum Prints” sees beatboxing virtuous Tom Thum matching forces with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and “Symphony For Me” sees the QSO putting on a free concert based on the submitted favourite classical pieces of some of its audience members. The music program also includes an environmentally focused muliti-media collaboration between former Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning, four-time Aria Award winner Katie Noonan and renowned Western Australian author Tim Winton, along with around-the-world solo sailor Jessica Watson, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and also “A State of Grace” tribute to the music of Tim and Jeff Buckley, featuring a swag of acclaimed musical performers.

Brisbane audiences are sure to be tickled pink with the program, which features hundreds of artists from five continents, including a number of free events (because arts should be accessible to everyone). Although there are many ways to enjoy a festival, exhilaration comes from the connection and accumulation of its program’s parts, and in 2015, this promises to be truer than ever. With so much theatre, music, dance, circus, film and lots more, there are countless opportunities to brighten and enlighten. Tickets are on sale from June 30, so grab a program and start planning how you are going to paint the town pink this September.

PROGRAMS