Bard style and stuff

‘All the world’s a stage’ we are told by a melancholy Jaques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. In the coming weeks this is especially true as the Anywhere Theatre Festival offers opportunity for Brisbane audiences to be immersed in theatre anywhere. This is not a normal theatre festival with shows instead taking stage in carparks, heritage homes, bookstores and backyards, amongst other obscure locations…. anywhere but on a traditional theatre stage.

Jaques’ iconic monologue opener is especially apt for this year’s festival, which features a number of Shakespeare works…. of sort. Shakespeare Plugged In’s “Much Ado” is a collaboration in the form of an immersive rock event featuring original tracks adapted from Shakespeare and written by local musicians. Indeed, the epic immersive creation promises killer music as it attempts to fit its witty Shakespearean comedy namesake with original songs, into 90 minute story of competing musicians on and off stage on the night of a home venue gig, performed in and around legendary Brisbane bar and venue, The Zoo.

Amongst other Shakespeares there is also Pastiche Theatre Collective’s “Romeo and Juliet and Friends” at Fortitude Valley’s Daily Planet Café which, rather than serving as an adaption, sets out to explore why we feel the need to keep changing the original tale of woe. And not really using a text at all is “A Midsummer Night’s Whatever” from Edge Improv at Annerley’s Junction Hotel, which every night sees its three actors devise and perform a band new Shakespearean play, based on audience suggestions.

One problem with getting people to see Shakespeare is that it’s often quite long, so these productions, which are of more manageable duration make for excellent either alternatives or toe-dippers to traditional takes. Coming fresh from opening night last week of Queensland Theatre’s “Twelfth Night” I am eager to keep the Shakespeare ball rolling by seeing 400+ year old texts being given new life by practitioners experimenting with dressing them up, stripped them down and turning them inside out.

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While online dialogue of late may be around consideration of it there might be too much Shakespeare, productions continue to show how, even when modernised and recontextualised, his works remain universal in their themes of passion, love, lust, loyalty and vengeance, which, as human emotions are not dependent upon time, place or culture. Certainly there is power in forcing an audience to consider a new take on what they thought they knew. To have the experience unfold in an unusual setting only adds to the curiosity, making the suggestion of shows like those on offer at this year’s Anywhere Festival entirely irrestable to a Bard girl like myself.

This is my fifth (I think) year as a Festival reviewer and, with this repertoire in mind, I know that anything Act/React is also sure to be great. Having brought Brisbane smash, sell-out hits such as “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play” and last year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival fun “Let Them Eat Cake”, the improve troupe are back again with “Kiss of the Vampire Squid”, a tribute to nautical myths and legends, and ghost stories of the sea, on-board the HMAS Diamantina at the Queensland Maritime Museum at South Bank. With promise of a live piano accordion soundtrack some marvellous ocean-inspired creature creations in complement to its audience-inspired comedy, it is sure to be heaps of fun when it kicks off on opening night of the Festival on Thursday 10th May for its sixth show run.

This of course, is but a mere snapshot of what this year’s bigger and better Anywhere Theatre Festival has on show. There is so much ado around in Brisbane during May; you just need to look around and, in the case of the Anywhere Theatre Festival, get immersed for unique theatre experiences and Shakespeare like you haven’t seen before.

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Oh what a riotous night

Twelfth Night (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 28 – May 19

“Twelfth Night” opens with one of Shakespeare’s most resonate quotes; ‘if music be the food of love play on’ Duke Orsino of Illyria commands. It is a festive sentiment so apt that it is appears more than once in what is Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is appropriate then for tunes be added to the Bard’s lyrics by music legend Tim Finn, as is the case with Queensland Theatre’s realisation of the Shakespearean comedy.

The melancholic nature of Shakespeare suits Finn’s style and with Sam Strong’s direction songs are seamlessly integrated, making it difficult to recall that numbers like ‘Falling in Love’ and ‘Autumn Comedy’ have not always bookended intermission. Although there is affection for music evident throughout, the numbers are not as memorable as those of Finn’s soundtrack to then QTC’s brilliant “Ladies in Black”. Even so, they still add another (mostly delicate) layer to the play, like the fairy lights that twinkle atop the intricate revolving stage centrepiece. Detailed staging also enhances the production in many ways. The revolving stage not only creates nooks and crannies of interest in which its multi-story action takes place, but it allows central showcase of the excellent band of musicians that bring Finn’s compositions to life.

Washed ashore on Illyria and separated from her presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Kevin Spink), the gutsy Viola (Jessica Tovey) must learn to survive alone in an exotic foreign country. This means disguising herself as a man and so, as Cesario, she gets a job with Duke Orsino (Jason Klarwein) who has decided he is love with Countess Olivia (Liz Buchanan). Unfortunately, Olivia is more interested in mourning recent family deaths than responding to suitors, so Orsino sends Cesario to mediate. The problem is that the Viola he knows as Cesario has fallen in love with the Duke. And all the while there is an ensemble entourage watching on in amusement, providing much of the play’s humour in their drinking, joking, singing and torment.

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“Twelfth Night” is a story about the thrill of falling in love, but also of growing old and showing mortality. Indeed, there is some darkness in its focus of characters left behind and mistreated, through concentration in this realisation appears to be more on laughs and silliness. One of the maligned characters is Oliva’s vain and pompous steward, Malvolio, or in this case, a more comic than tragic, Malvolia, in cross-gendered play by the acclaimed Christen O’Leary. When several characters concoct a plan to make Malvolia believe Olivia returns her love, O’Leary is hilarious as she struts about with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire) and then even better in an Act Two reveal of her cross-gartered yellow stockings in ‘Lady Ho Ho’, the show’s musical and comic highlight.

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The play showcases much humour of the Shakespeare sort; “Twelfth Night” was the last true comedy that the bard wrote so it represents a refinement of the cross-dressing et al comic conventions that that personify his more light-hearted fare. There is mistaken identity, cross dressing caused awkwardness when Viola (as Cesario) is instructed to bathe Orsino, baudy jokes courtesy of the always-excellent Bryan Probets as Sir Toby Belch and eavesdropping whilst remaining hidden like in “Much Ado About Nothing”.

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A clear energy all around makes for a show of much colour and movement. Jessica Tovey is a spirited but sincere Viola and Liz Buchanan infuses the wealthy countess Olivia’s mourning with lightness.  Perhaps the biggest standout, however, is Sandro Colarelli as Feste, Olivia’s jester servant. Although he is labelled as a fool in which Lady Olivia’s father took much delight, he is as much melancholy as comic as he uses his wisdom to awaken others. And vocally, he makes his musical numbers into sublime aural experiences.

The melan-comedy world of “Twelfth Night” has always been a merry, mixed-up realm of sex, love and gender games. It is a funny and melancholy place, but a complicated one thanks to its multi-storylines, which makes for a lengthy show duration. Still Queensland Theatre audience members do not seem to mind, rather having a ball with its musical interludes and riotous, farcical disorder.

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.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

Two-tale treat

The Winter’s Tale (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 24 – September 9

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Shrew anew

The Taming of the Shrew (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

May 13 – June 3

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Nash Theatre’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is far from the controversial 16th century comedy of its source material. In this imagining, it is set in the Black Widows biker bar, still in Padua Italy (despite all the Bundaberg Rum bottles). Its initial scene gives nod to its setting though, through a musical introduction of the ‘Sicilian Heart’ sort, before Cutting Crew’s ‘I Just Died in Your Arms’ establishes a great story arch before taking audiences forward 20 years to the tale of bar-owner Baptista (Jennifer Morgan) and her very-different daughters, perfect Bianca (Kristina Nisova) and the older, flawed Katherina (Hannah Martin). The surplus of suitors for Bianca makes Baptista impose the condition that Katherina must be married before Bianca can be. And so begins a series of secret deals, assumed identities and unconventional courtship by the brash Petruchio as, following decision to marry based on his self-proclaimed desire for fortune, he attempts to tame the headstrong Katherine (the shrew of the title) into transformation through torment.

The cast is a large one, with 14 members, many assuming multiple roles. As the brash Petruchio of Verona, Isaac Barnes is an absolute standout; Shakespearean dialogue sits comfortably in his mouth and his spot-on interpretation engenders the show with bawdy humour and alike, befitting one of the most comprehensive of Shakespearean comedies. However the quality of his performance also serves to showcase the contrast with those whose delivery of laden lines is comparatively overworked and, as such, less engaging.

Although initially, Hannah Martin’s cursed Katherina is more moody teenager than feisty feminist, as in the Zeffirelli’s seminal 1967 film adaptation, the best scenes are those of Petruchio in interaction with the tempestuous Katherina after their first introduction. Kristina Nisova is solid as the unassuming Bianca, conveying a still-spirited character through flawless delivery of the Shakespearean dialogue and bringing a vitality to scenes with her courtly, romantic lover Lucentio (Matthew Steenson). And Chris Robins more than holds his own as Trainio, Lucentio’s loyal servant and mentor.

Regardless of its politics, this energetic production is highly entertaining and vitally inventive. As complement to the excellent design choices, music features to particular effect, with a soundtrack of rock chick icons like Suzi Quatro, Pat Benatar, and Blondie contributing much to the overall experience. Even the play’s lute player is transformed into a punk rocker of Ozzy Osbourne type. And gender blind casting works well in making a challenging play that serves as celebration of female subordination through the heroine’s submission to her husband’s tyranny, more palatable to modern audience tastes. Female characters are more active participants than passive victims and the choice to make the story just as much Baptista’s is ingenious once, fully appreciated after the twist in the tail of the final act.

As deliberate offset to the problematic gender politics, boisterous comedy abounds thoroughly, crescendoing in Petruchio and Katherina’s shambolic wedding (and not just because of its drunken horse as best man) shown on screen, making the production an equal treat for both those familiar to the ado of the story and those uninitiated to recognition of its Shakespearean motifs of mistaken identity and alike.

It is a long show that could perhaps have benefited from some abridgement, yet, still, Director Jason Nash should be commended for his insight into and engagement with the work and choice not to rely solely on physical comedy to realise the play’s humour. Rather than presenting patriarchy at its worst, this “The Taming of the Shrew” serves not only as a tribute to Shakespeare’s storytelling skills but also a homage to the wit of his words and proof that given the right context, his themes can continue to provide a relevant take on the world around us and the relationships within it.

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