Challenges created by time

Issue 

Macbeth
By William Shakespeare
Directed by George Ogilvie
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf Theatre, Sydney, until April 4
Q Theatre, Penrith, April 10-May 5
Reviewed by Allen Myers

The passage of centuries affects unevenly our perceptions of Shakespeare's plays. The fact that sexism and domestic violence are just as real in the late 20th century as they were in the late 16th makes it easy for audiences to enter into a play like Othello. Young love frustrated by outside social concerns is a sufficiently familiar theme to allow Romeo and Juliet to be rewritten as West Side Story.

On the other hand, with Macbeth, time has created greater challenges for director and players. We can understand, intellectually, that Macbeth's regicide is made worse by the fact that Duncan is his guest, but we do not feel the horror that would have been felt by an Elizabethan audience. When events are set in motion by witches, the "suspension of disbelief" required of a modern audience is much greater than it was for Shakespeare's contemporaries.

Director George Ogilvie has chosen to confront such challenges by combining a stark realism with nightmare-like episodes to produce what he calls a "sombre fairy tale". It's an imaginative and intelligent treatment that on the whole works well.

With a minimum of fuss, designer Kristian Fredrikson has created a simple and convincing medieval Scottish castle; you can almost feel the cold draughts that must swirl down its passageways. The predominant colour is black, setting off the white robe of the doomed King Dunstan and the red of his blood, the latter echoed in the coronation gowns of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare's female characters, even though often memorable, rarely appear as fully developed, complex individuals. Lady Macbeth is probably the outstanding exception to that generalisation; there is real drama in the conflict within her, not only in her interactions with other characters.

Much of the success of this production is due to Anne Looby's thoughtful and perceptive portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Looby seeks out and conveys what is ageless in her lines; it's a masterful performance.

John Walton's Macbeth also has much to commend it, particularly in the second half of the play, as Macbeth's world begins collapsing around him.

However, I was a bit uncomfortable with the early scenes, as Macbeth debates with himself whether or not to set out on the path of murder and "greatness". The problem here relates to those effects of four centuries' passage mentioned earlier, and how an audience can be made to feel what is going on within the character.

It would have been easier all around if Shakespeare had chosen to have Macbeth spurred on by an Iago rather than by witches. The internal conflict could then have been presented, as it is in Othello, by dialogue between the two. (This is undoubtedly an additional reason why it is easier for modern audiences to empathise with Othello.)

Witches, supernatural creatures, would stop being supernatural if they had to be continuously onstage. Shakespeare gives part of the "Iago" role to Lady Macbeth, but much of it remains internal to Macbeth. This makes his monologues of particular dramatic importance, and it seemed to me that they were just a bit too rushed: a little more time is needed to let them sink in properly.

All in all, this is a refreshing presentation, one that provokes thought as well as entertains.