Macbeth doth come

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

Rover rarity

The Rover (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre 

August 19 – September 4

2022 represents Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s 21st year and the atmosphere of their production of prolific playwright Aphra Behn’s “The Rover” is appropriately carnival-like. A band of Cavaliers, including Colonel Belvile (Milan Bjelajac) and Captain Willmore (Dudley Powell as the reckless and promiscuous cavalier nicknamed the Rover), travel to foreign climes during carnival season. Belvile is in search of love, while Willmore is after a good time.  

While the show is not the company’s usual Shakespearean play, it is easy to appreciate its choice given the commonalities across the two playwright’s works. The language choices and characters of the Bard’s Italian plays make appearance, disguise also features within Aphra’s work, and there are also strong female characters keen to break free of the social constraints placed upon them (Behn was England’s first female professional playwright). Director Rebecca Murphy respectfully leans into the commonalities, and celebrates the liberal feminism at the core of the play’s commentary upon the position of women, most obviously through the noble but feisty wildcat Hellena (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) who decries marriage when her brother Don Pedro (Rob Pensalfini) encourages her to become a nun, determining instead to venture out into the Carnvial and fall in love.

There are many parallels between “The Rover” and “Much Ado About Nothing” in particular, not just through this, but also Blunt and Frederick ironic mockery of Belvile for being a lost English boy of 30. Indeed, from when things open to a sad English cavalier Belvile being teased by gentlemen Blunt (Angus Thorburn) and Frederick (Willem Whitfield) for his melancholy, uncalled for during carnival time, the male and female attitudes towards love are depicted as different; while men fearfully mock the emotion, women are seeking it out. Contrast is also evidence in the sister Florinda (Emily Potts) and Hellena as they throw themselves into the chaotic streets of Naples during Carnival, one in search of her forbidden true love, the other in search of a good time. While both are seeking control over their own lives, the ladylike and more modest Florinda desires to follow her heart in its love for the gentleman Belvile, which is in contrast to their brother Don Pedro, who views the purpose of marriage as to gain status, not to mention the arrangement for her to marry the wealth but elderly Don Vincentio.

While its intricate plot makes the play a long one, things move a swift comic pace with snappy dialogue and physical storytelling meaning that there is always plenty to look at and listen to within its cosmopolitan city’s setting. Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn’s design of lush, layered costumes add to the story’s initial folly, especially around the appearance vs reality appearance of masks and disguises. And jolly musical accompaniment includes original compositions by Liliana Macarone and Rob Pensalfini, entertaining the audience pre-show and at interval, such has become the typical treat of QSE shows.

The classic restoration comedy is also brought to raucous life a host of colourful characters. Of particular note in performance, Fitzgerald-Quinn layers Helena’s feistiness, making her at-once enticed by Willmore’s witty charm and unafraid of his flirtatious ways, outlining how their relationship is to unfold. Similarly, Powell gives the titular Captain a multi-faceted realisation, joyous at finding himself in Naples for the business of love and mirth, as a melancholy dog in woo of Helena and lovesick in admiration of her eyes, face, mouth, teeth… and wit, yet also with a dark side that sees him easy to anger and draw his sword upon other men, and attack Florinda.

Thorburn is another standout as the substantial fool out of his depth in apparent love, Blunt. The selfish idiot, appropriately mocked and disdained by his friends, and valued only for his money, believes himself to be in love with scheming lady-of-the-night Lucetta (Julie Martin), thinking her to be a woman of quality. The scene in which he is tricked into her bedroom and out of his clothes and money is perfectly pitched to glide the audience into interval ahead of the confronting components of Act Two, and Thorburn’s give to the character of some moments of vulnerability, endears him to the audience all the more.

It is a shame that “The Rover” is so rarely performed. Behn’s most successful (and at-the-time scandalous) play may be a dark one of mixed themes, but it effectively features strong female characters, empowered with some control. It also has some very funny moments in its witty writing and performances, making it worth a visit for something Shakespeare-ish but not really so.

Photos c/o – Benjamin Printable Photography

Fortune’s foolery

Romeo and Juliet (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands Amphitheatre

August 26 – September 12

It has taken the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble until its twentieth birthday year to finally mount a full production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play, “Romeo and Juliet” and the outcome is most definitely worth the wait. Some would say that it’s hard to put a new twist on the oft-performed play, however, the window dressing of fresh interpretations are somewhat irrelevant, if respect is not shown to the original text. And of the many productions I have now seen of the tragic story of woe, this is the best in terms of making the original text accessible to a modern audience while, in many ways, recreating the experience of watching the work as Shakespeare meant it to be, with early acts bringing bawdy sexual innuendo and horseplay, and audience interaction (mostly from William Summers as an enthusiastic jester of sorts).

The cast speak Shakespeare with clarity, as if it’s easy to understand English and so this is what it becomes. They treat the language with a regard that is evident from the show’s very first scene. Enhancing this, a simple but clever set (design by QSE Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini), allows focus to remain where it should be. The ensemble’s return to the Roma Street Parkland also provides opportunity for the accompaniment of live musicians performing a live score (plus pre-show and interval entertainment), to build upon the emotions being portrayed on stage. And though the opening night environment may have meant competition from fireworks and passing parkland foot traffic (as well as some Act One lighting issues), the professionalism of all performers is such that they never even miss a beat.

The story begins in a Verona torn apart by the warring families of Montague and Capulet where the two star-crossed lovers of the tragedy’s title, push back against the expectations surrounding them and, in their greatest act of defiance, find unexpected love. Obviously, the performances of fortune’s fool Romeo and his true beauty Juliet are, therefore, integral to the merit of any production and, in this instance, Liliana Macarone as a gender-blind Romeo and Sarah Doyle as Juliet, do a commendable job.

Macarone makes for an obsessive Romeo who embraces the emotional rollercoaster of her character’s experience and is equally engaging whether in the intense giddy swagger of young love or a blind rage of attack on his sworn enemy Tybalt (John Siggers). Doyle gives us attitude without the oft-proportioned emo disposition. Her teenage hyperbole brings additional humour too in the reactions of Friar Lawrence (Rob Pensalfini) when Juliet arrives at the cleric’s cell melodramatically brandishing a knife and saying she will kill herself rather than marry Paris, leading to the plan that becomes the tragedy of the play’s end. Her portrayal of Juliet as being more angsty that brattish in her teenage sensibility gives us moments of identifiable parent and child interactions that relate her to, rather than alienate her from, audience members other than the usually aimed-at adolescent viewer.

Detailed care is taken to differentiate characters where actors are fulfilling multiple roles and apart from the over-caricature of Juliet’s father-approved suitor Paris, the rich texture of the play is mostly maintained. Siggers is both a firebrand, easily-angered Tybalt and an invested Friar John, unable to deliver word to Romeo as to Juliet’s plan to use a death-emulating potion to replicate her death. And there is certainly plenty of physical energy to Rebekah Schmidt’s engaging performance as Romeo’s mischievous cousin Mercutio, made all the more impressive by her then quick transformation into a poised Prince of Verona, concerned about maintaining the public peace at all costs. She not only allows us to relish in the saucy merchant’s delicious word play and double entendres but she doesn’t overplay his final moments in the character’s famous ‘a plague on both your houses’ decry. And though he does, as the Nurse banters, love to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month, in Schmidt’s hands, we could happily listen to him all day.

The witty interplay of mockery between Mercutio and Juliet’s nurse (Rebecca Murphy) not only serves to highlight the binary oppositions at the core of the play’s themes, but provides some of the production’s most pleasurable moments. Murphy is superb as Juliet’s devoted Nurse and comes close to stealing the show. She makes the comic character endearing rather than overbearing, as she so often is played, and though she is talkative throughout, her constant interjections and interruptions of herself, make her scenes, especially those in interplay with Juliet, a real treat. Indeed, the entire production manages to bring the funny at every opportunity, with actors using pace, pause, emphasis and accompanying gesture to effect to help its audience access the full meaning of the characters’ often layered dialogue.

With its abundant energy, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” is a solid and enjoyable performance of the play. While not everything works perfectly on opening night, the ensemble treats the text with reverence and sticks closely to its intentions even with its gender blind casting, proving just how robust the Bard’s work continues to be.

Two-tale treat

The Winter’s Tale (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 24 – September 9

2nd half.jpg

Winter may not really have made it to Brisbane this year, but its tale is being told at Roma Street Parklands in 2017’s Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s later and most problematic works, grown out of the anthology of his preceding plays.

Rather than offering a seasonal suggestion, however, the title, “The Winter’s Tale” insinuates a fairy tale of the old wives’ sort. And while it is grouped among Shakespeare’s comedies, its second act happy ending comes after a first act of psychological drama as a family is torn apart when a beloved King turns into a jealous monster, setting in motion a series of events that forever changes the lives of everyone he loves. The result is a tragi-comedy about forgiveness in which redemption is available to all and everyone gets to live.

By Shakespeare standards, it is a relatively simple story. Leontes, King of Sicily (Rob Pensalfini) is consumed by jealousy that Queen Hermione (Paige Poulier) is pregnant by his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (an under-used Silvan Rus). Protestations of their innocence only deepen his conviction and Leontes orders the faithful Camillo (Liliana Macarone) to kill Polixenes. Instead, Camillo and Polixenes escape to Bohemia as Leontes banishes Hermione to a dungeon where she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita who is taken away and abandoned to die. Leonates later repents and Perdita (Meghan Bowden) returns, having been saved and raised by a passing shepherd.

daughter.jpg

Presented by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the show is full of Shakespearen traditions. There’s audience acknowledgement, bawdy bits and the arrival of a ‘letter’ to save the day, even if in this instance the Oracle’s rule to Leontes that Hermoine is innocent and her daughter is his, goes ignored. Costumes are intricate and interesting in their detail and lighting adds layers to the already-unique parkland open-air aesthetic. With the audience seated around the action on the park’s amphitheatre’s stage, there is opportunity to make use of the area’s banked seating as an additional performance space and action sometimes spills from the stage. This works well, even if the accompanying sound effects sometimes distract more than enhance, in competition with modest voice projections. There is certainly a lot happening throughout the production, including pre-show and at interval where the multi-talented cast perform live music.

costumes.jpg

One of the most wonderful things about seeing a Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble show, is hearing familiar Shakespearean phrases brought to life by a uniformly-excellent cast. “The Winter’s Tale” offers no exception; words are enunciated clearly and verse is delivered beautifully. Pensalfini is strong as the obstinate King Leontes, though his latter repentance is somewhat too subtle. And Paige Poulier is excellent as Hermoine, delivering a memorable, dignified appeal to Leontes’ conscience and plea for mercy. Her passionate delivery is maturely muted with a rationality and integrity that contrasts Leontes’ irrational jealousy and sets Hermoine apart from more meek Shakespearean heroines of the Desdemona sort.

paulina.jpg

Despite only being present for brief scenes in the play, Rebecca Murphy also adds interest through her compelling depiction as the noblewoman Paulina. Unrelenting in her condemnation, she is the only one who can talk back to the King, and she does, fiercely defending the ‘sweet’st, dear’st creature’ Hermione’s virtue in call-out of his ‘gross and foolish’ decisions. In this moving scene, which sees Paulina bringing the baby Perdita to Leontes and pleading with him to look at the child and realise it is indeed his daughter, her Paulina is strong and determined, revealing no weaknesses that might undermine her arguments against injustice. And at the other extreme, Chris Vaag is as comically charming as ever, this time as the roguish wandering minstrel-pickpocket vagabond Autolycus.

chris vaag.jpg

While the skilled cast carry the play along and produce some fine moments, it is a long night and, at times, it feels like it, especially after the switch between the story’s disparate halves. It is frustrating too that the script calls for things to happen offstage to be descripted by someone onstage, beyond its famous ‘exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction preceeding the offstage death of Antigonu.

forgiveness

Previous productions show that QSE are at their best in presentation of the tradition of Shakespearean comedy and although its themes are more pastoral, “The Winter’s Tale” is illustration of this above all else. Whether courtesy of physicality, exaggeration or passive aggressive insults, its latter half crams in as much comedy as possible, which in some way counteracts the dissatisfaction of its all-is-forgiven ending.  Certainly, “The Winter’s Tale” has much to offer audiences, including opportunity to add a seldom-performed play to their Shakespearean repertoire. And that makes it a treat worth seeing… even if it is sans bear.