Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy is dismembered and reassembled into a cinematic horror that advances a fresh thesis.
For decades, theatre companies have not been content in delivering renditions of Shakespeare that are entirely faithful to the source text. Orson Welles was tinkering with ‘Julius Caesar’ in the 1930s, utilising modern-dress costumes and innovative staging and lighting to convey new meaning to a revered play. Geordie Brookman’s State Theatre Company production has done likewise, often to great effect, but has also trimmed and streamlined the text; scenes that were not deemed essential to the story were cut, while deceased major characters (and there is no shortage of these) remain on stage as a chorus, often usurping the roles of minor characters. This latter choice is not simply a matter of expediency; Macbeth’s victims remain on stage, as they remain in his subconscious, to haunt his every action.
This is indeed a bold re-imagining that may offend some purists. While new interpretations are welcome, perhaps some of Shakespeare’s original intent may have been lost.
It was no coincidence that Macbeth contained a trio of witches. The number three was known by audiences of the time to have a supernatural meaning. Characters within the play often repeat words or phrases three times, with “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” in Macbeth’s final soliloquy being the most famous example. Macbeth receives three visions and executes three murderous plots with his wife, with the final act responsible for their downfall. Disregarding this intent of the playwright for the purposes of substituting your own is a brave act. By emphasising trauma as a motive also perhaps minimises the message about how destructive ambition can be; in an age in which we are ruled by dangerous narcissists, that message rings more truly than ever. There are also some oversights that may irk the pedantic. Macbeth laments the visions that cause him to “unfix his hair”, yet Nathan O’Keefe, who plays the character, has a shaved head. Does it matter? In Shakespeare, every word, every line matters.
Ian McKellen, before he was famed for Gandalf and Magneto, was known for his menacing Macbeth. In a masterclass about the role, McKellen stated that Shakespeare’s dialogue cannot be reduced to a melody and a rhythm that is capable of being memorised, like a parrot; recited loudly in an English accent. Each word, each line, must be internalised, given meaning. Those meanings, blended with the inner workings of the artist, will be apparent to all those who watch. In that way, it is like opera. Performers in both are often tasked with conveying material that is difficult for an audience to comprehend through the words alone; gesture and intonation are vital. The performances of Peter Carroll (Duncan), Rachel Burke (Witch) and Rashidi Edward (Malcolm) were certainly true to McKellen’s maxim. Carroll captivated and was a hilarious ghost. Burke was versatile; sometimes playful, sometimes sinister. Edward’s intensity more than compensated for his thick accent, which on occasions was difficult to make out.
Nathan O’Keefe and Anna Steen, as the Macbeths, though, came out of the gate too strongly. Instead of a steady descent into madness and rage, they raged from the outset. There was little, or not enough, alteration in the volume and tone of voice; nor were pauses used as effectively as they could have been. To use the operatic example, it was too much forte, not enough pianissimo or mezzo-forte. Anger can be conveyed in both a whisper and a shout; it need not be one hundred minutes of flying spittle and bulging jugulars. Perhaps this served the new interpretation; if trauma was the operative cause of their actions, the characters will inevitably be slightly mad from the beginning. Traditionally, Macbeth’s insanity comes incrementally, as the seeds planted by the witches take root. This production, though, for good or for ill, is defined by its departure from tradition.
With every new interpretation of the classic work, new meaning is unearthed, such is the majesty of the piece. Life is too fleeting to simply watch the same movie on repeat. Go see 'Macbeth', then debate it with your friends for months.