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

Ancient appeal

The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 17 – 27

“He didn’t think much of her at first.” So, the audience is tantalised by the strong start to “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars”. The work is full of creativity, not only in Van Badham’s poetic, but not overly lyrical writing (which can make even box a sound sensuous), but in The Hive Collective’s lively and engaging presentation of the work. Indeed, Heidi Manché’s nimble direction of what is essentially a series of monologues spoken directly to the audience, only adds to the experience of this smart and spirited rom-com of sorts.

The interesting and intelligent two-hander, which is based on the Ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, is essentially two stories in one as it traces a woman’s romances with two very different men. The character tying the stories together is Marion (Sarah Ogden), an artist working initially at a museum and later teaching a septuagenarian art group at a holiday resort in Wales.

The opening line narration establishes the work’s distinctive style, which sees the performers talking about the characters in third person narrative before transforming into them, enabling an additional layer of interest. Michael (Rob Pensalfini) is a publications manager at an Oxford museum. Marion, is the new artist-in-residence in a comfortable relationship with a stone mason boyfriend. There is no immediate attraction. (He is married and she isn’t even his type). However, a dangerous attraction is soon developed from provocations at the photocopier, a blue dress and baking, leading to an urgent encounter during an at-night vigil in attempt to discover the truth behind the mysterious, monstrous bull threatening the museum’s antiquities.

As Michael and Marion unleash the beast of their lusty animal attraction, the Minotaur is manifested from the edge of the dark. And when, in the aftermath, she is left emotionally perished, we understand her flee to a new life as art tutor in the seaside resort, when she finds herself initially infuriated but later intrigued by Mark, a wayward womanising Australian sommelier we know will go on to enliven her from the painful self-loathing of her life’s wreckage … for despite its mythic proportions of sensuality and debauchery, “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” is also touching in the emotional honesty of its reflection on the role of cruelty and heartbreak in character development into a new version of self.

The risky and at times risqué story ebbs and flows in the ways of life, which is enhanced by the cresendoing of overlapping character narration towards the first story’s climax. This, and the use of third person storytelling, effectively gives us insight into the private thoughts of both characters, which ensures a good balance between its hyperbolic mythology and its essential charm, which is seen especially in the second story of Marion and Mark, largely due to Pensalfini’s performance.

Pensalfini brings an irresistible, charismatic energy to the knock-about Mark, delivering a memorable performance, intuitively responsive to the audience’s energy. We also see his range not only across the stories, but within the first story itself, in which, like Ogden, he thunders his character to larger-than-life elevation. In both stories, the two establish clear, distinct characters, (for Ogden, the before and after of Marion’s infidelity) and there is a clear chemistry throughout.

Sarah Winter’s deceptively simple set allows the performers the space to shine, unburdened by much beyond the text. The only items in the clean, white space of the curtained stage-upon-a-stage of New Benner Theatre are a versatile collection of white boxes that are moved around to easily represent different places, spaces and even people. And when the curtains are drawn back and the space opens up for the second story, it works with Christine Felmingham’s lighting to signal the illumination of Marion’s new self. The live on-stage musical score courtesy of Shenzo Gregorio similarly assists in taking us from the build of the first story’s cacophonies to the tender rediscoveries of later gentler sections.

Even if unfamiliar with detail of Greek mythology of the work’s source material, it is easy enough for the audience to follow the most obvious allusions. Mark is, as is quoted, clearly Dionysus, the godof wine, fertility, ritual madness and ecstasy. Still, some program guidance to assist in appreciation of the work’s ancient inspirations, would perhaps have been helpful. Regardless, the playful celebration of the complexities at the heart of female sexuality is still a vibrant addition to the busy February theatre season. And if the appeal of this dynamic debut outing is any indication, the future works of this exciting new collective can only be awaited with much anticipation.

Photo c/o –  Stephen Henry

Ready for revenge

Titus (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 19 – September 6

dad and stumps

The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is committed to sharing Shakespeare’s epic stories. And when it comes to epic they don’t get much grander than the bloody, vengeful “Titus Andronicus”, the source of their latest work, “Titus” in which we are told:

I must talk of murders, rapes, and massacres, 
Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
Complots of mischief, treason, villanies
Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform’d:

The comic tragedy tells begins with the great, fictional Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Rob Pensalfini) returning home victorious but battle-weary after a decade-long, brutal war with the Goths. His first act is to ritually sacrifice his prisoner, the eldest son of his now Goth Queen, Tamora (Rebecca Murphy). However, when the corrupt Saturninus (Benjamin Prindable) is made Emperor and surprisingly makes Tamora his Queen, a new battle ensues as Tamora, and then Titus, enact a cycle of double revenge that sees violent acts met with violent deeds.

In the arduous role of the titular Titus, ‘the woefullest man who ever lived in Rome’, Pensalfini anchors the production with a steadfast performance as he did as Prospero in last year’s “The Tempest”. His Titus is enigmatic as he traverses his narrative of heroic veteran, stoic parent, crazy victim and clever revenger, for as with all the primary characters, his performance is one that emphasises the complexity to Shakespeare’s characters. As the Machiavellian villain Aaron, the Moor, Silvan Rus does an expert job of revealing his cunning, delighting in his malevolence in a manner like that of Shakespeare’s future Iago. Even when suggesting that Tamora’s sons rape Titus’ only daughter Lavinia before killing her as mean of affording Tamora her revenge, there is a musicality to his dialogue delivery that makes for a thoroughly engaging performance.

Rebecca Murphy is appropriate controlled and cold-hearted as the sensual but merciless Tamora, Queen of the Goths, unmoved by Lavinia’s pleas with her as a fellow woman to kill her to spare the pain and public stain of rape. Her performance is dramatic without being overly so, which is no easy task given the character’s selfishness and lack of feeling in delegating infanticide of her newborn, illegitimate son to his father’s hands. However, it is Johancee Theron who leaves the most lasting impression. Her energetic revelatory performance as Lavinia, ranges from chaste, obedient but feisty betrothed (she would be a marvel in the role of Kat in “The Taming of the Shrew”) to beaten-down, brutal rape victim. Disfigured and mute after the incident, she is deprived of traditional communication, yet her performance transcends this incapacitation as she shares emotion and even injects humour through subtle facial expressions and expressive eyes.

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As much as modernisations and adaptations of Shakespearean plays have a place as evidence of his currency as a contemporary voice, there is something satisfying to the experience of seeing a more traditional take on his work, still able to actively engage its audience in such an array of emotions (especially for those unfamiliar with the horrific details of the show’s climactic, cannibalistic banquet). Not only does this “Titus” handle the story’s macabre aspects well, but it cleverly uses humour to engage the audience into lulled satisfaction ahead of its disturbing savagery as Rus showcases Aaron’s sadistic charm through playful, teasing sexual innuendo and even a ‘your mother’ joke as taunt to his lover’s sons, never missing a beat in terms of timing.

The choice to again have audience members seated on stage allows the action to be given a depth befitting its vast and varied scene-scapes as players take the action into the tied seating of the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre’s terraced stalls, with the pit over stage edge also becoming a convenient way of disposing of many of the tragedy’s victims, making transitions subtle and seamless. This is a production that knows how to make a visual impact. The proximity of audience members literally allows viewers to, in some instances, come face-to-face with characters, which affords additional investment in their narrative. And the incorporation of live music and movement inspired by the Japanese dance theatre form, Butoh only add to the interest and aesthetic appeal of show that is already visually lush with detailed costumes and atmospheric lighting, particularly a menacing red that awashes the ‘stage’ during its moments of heightened horror.

red dance

While it is a fictional account, unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, “Titus Andronicus” contains echoes of many of the Bard’s later plays, with a finale scene revelation much like in “Othello”. Indeed, for Shakespeare enthusiasts there is much value in its consideration as one Shakespeare’s earlier works and its repeated negative Moor imagery in Aaron’s villainous choices in contrast to the unfortunate circumstances of Othello’s villainy a decade later. But this is far from an elitist work for Shakespeare aficionados. As exploration of the raw, primal instinct for retribution, “Titus” is a gripping production, well worth seeing for those looking for some Roma Street Parkland revenge. QSE is to be commended for daring to take on Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent work and showing audiences that there is more to the Bard’s tragedies than tales of youthful woe. Clearly, it not only respects the work but deserves to have audiences flocking to see how they do Shakespeare… properly.

Shakespeare in the park(land)

The Tempest (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 20 – September 6

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is an epic play of many themes. Overthrown as the rightful Duke of Milan, enigmatic protagonist Prospero, along with his wispy, dishevelled, eager-to-please daughter Miranda have been 12 years banished to a remote island by Prospero’s usurper brother, Antonio. Aided by a magic fairy, Ariel, Prospero conjures up a powerful Tempest that shipwrecks the vessel carrying amongst others, his brother, the king, a jester and the king’s son with whom Miranda falls in love, on the magical island.

And it is very much a magical island that has been created in the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s unique and highly-effective staging of the play, with the audience sitting on stage to watch some of the show’s grand scenes, such as its opening titular storm spectacle, being performed from the stalls of the Roma Street Parkland amphitheatre. When the action moves to the intimacy of the shared stage, the result is a heightened engagement and understanding of the text, as the proximity allows for appreciation of every nuance of characterisation, from the inflections of dialogue to the most subtle of facial expressions. As juxtaposition, however, the show is also bold in its fusion of a range of genres including live music, dance, physical theatre and clowning, to the point where, the language of the Bard takes a back seat to the visuals of the performance. Although this has the capacity to alienate traditionalists, anything that has parkland children attempting to find perch in nearby trees to watch Shakespeare, is surely a good thing and, as memorable as many of the on-stage antics are, to witness the pure delight on the faces of young people entranced by at 400-year-old text is a joyous experience.

pro

Shakespearean comedies contain a wide variety of characters, however, in the case of “The Tempest” it is patriarch Prospero (widely thought to represent Shakespeare himself) whose heart beats at the centre of the story. This is not only noted by Director Zoe Tuffin in the production’s program, but realised by a stand out performance from the company’s Artist Director, Rob Pensalfini as the complex character. Well-meaning and sympathetic, rather than bitter, he is more father than wizard, which only serves to emphasise the endurance of Shakespeare’s characters as complex, flawed beings – like all of us.

The prospect of enduring a play that runs for over two hours can sometimes spell torture, but in this production of Shakespeare’s final work, the time flies by as the cast makes full use of comic opportunities, unafraid to play for laughs. Caliban’s hilarious interactions dominate the middle of the play, much to the delight of many of the matinee’s youngest audience members. Indeed, Zac Kelty’s characterisation, comic timing and physicality as the earthy slave monster, combine in an exuberant, highly engaging performance.

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“The Tempest” is full of many weird and wonderful creatures. Usually one of the most memorable is the spirit Ariel (borrowed from air) bound to serve the magician Prospero, however, Rebecca Murphy’s realisation of the nymph is not ethereal or delicate, but bold in demeanour and dress, which is a disappointment for one of Shakespeare’s most light-hearted stories. The essence of this, is however, captured in a number of other ways, including the memorable image of sailors prancing away in escape across the stalls and into the Roma Street parkland.

Like Shakespeare himself, his namesake Queensland Ensemble has an acute sense of what makes good theatre and in the case of “The Tempest”, they deliver it in abundance. This is a play of romance, lyricism, musicality and comedy, and a production with something for everyone, much like the Shakespeare of its day.