There seems to be a current trend in the modernisation of well-known plays, to rejuvenate and refresh age-old stories for 21st Century audiences. The 2015 Malthouse production of Antigone, as well as Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hamlet and Richard III are notable examples from recent times. MTC’s 2017 production of Macbeth is the latest, and perhaps one of the most distinguished manfiestations of this dramatic approach. Experienced director, Simon Phillips, maintains his striking visual style, which is aided in no small measure by the imposing and multi-faceted sets, costume design and beaming stage lights.
We first see Macbeth (Hollywood actor Jai Courtney) pillaging the wastelands of Scotland for the Crown which he so devotedly serves. He is incredibly popular amongst his fellow soldiers, and even King Duncan (Robert Menzies) seems to take a liking to him. However, Macbeth’s stable, statesman-like qualities disintegrate once he hears three witches (Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Shareena Clanton, Kamil Ellis) prophesise that he will become King. This sets Macbeth on a crazed path of savagery, power-grabbing and paranoia.
This ‘update’ is evident from the very beginning of the production: the audience was welcomed by actors seated at a vandalised bus stop, an immediate indication that we were far from the middle ages. Indeed, the play appears to be designed to appeal to contemporary cultural sensibilities, as it bears a remarkable resemblance to conventions of the cinema. The window through which the audience views the action almost feels the same as a rectangular widescreen. The heavy musical score functions more as a soundtrack, mostly accentuating the tension and drama of the story, and emphasising its most formidable moments, recalling the work of film composers such as Bernard Hermann. It favours atmosphere over extravagance. Harpsichords and crumhorns are traded in for rumbling soundscapes and a resonant bass drone.
Similarly, swords and axes are exchanged for automatic rifles and knives, and chain mail for jungle fatigues. The reinterpretation suits the material remarkably well, in all of its darkness and treachery, reflecting the competence of Phillips’s performance decisions, as it is facilitated by the conspicuously achromatic sets and meticulous, effective lighting. In short, the transformation from Shakespearian times to a dark, dystopian future – mired in corruption, uncertainty and division – could not have been pulled off better.
The sets, designed by Shaun Gurton, are supremely detailed. They change and shift with great frequency and dexterity, keeping the audience invested and the momentum steaming along. Each one is distinct, while housing a sense of cohesion to the carefully-formed world of Scotland. Close communication and collaboration with lighting designer Nick Schlieper is evident, as the lights often provide a point of focus in the field of view – the burning car in the opening scene and lit candles at an extravagant dinner held by Macbeth are prime examples.
Of course, the good qualities of the play are not limited to these accompanying elements, which augment its more obvious triumphs.
Jai Courtney gives an energised performance as the scheming, yet disturbed Macbeth, capturing both qualities extremely well. He is at times impassioned, and at others, deeply anguished. Geraldine Hakewill’s Lady Macbeth is a highlight of the production: cold-blooded, scheming; and simultaneously sensual and sophisticated. Both performances capture the indelible rhythms of Shakespearian dialogue while, correspondingly, being fresh – sometimes spitting out lines with a prominent Australian twang. One feels the role of Macbeth is a much needed one for Courtney, who over the past few years has spent his time in loud, crass Hollywood tentpoles such as Terminator: Genisys and A Good Day to Die Hard.
MTC’s production of Macbeth is a visual and visceral feast. The considerable efforts of all involved – the director, set designer, lighting director, and performers – are bound to weigh heavily on its audiences. The production allows itself to be accessible to those unacquainted with the work, and also provides something worthwhile to those well-versed in the superlative realm of Shakespearian theatre. In all, an expansive and adventurous production that doesn’t stray too far from its material.
Macbeth is showing at MTC until 15 July. Tickets can be purchased on the MTC website.