Bell Shakespeare brings us a minimalist, sly, and refreshingly funny take on the Scottish play with their latest production, which sees Hazem Shammas (The Twelve, Safe Harbour) as Macbeth and Jessica Tovey (The Miser, The Merchant of Venice) as Lady Macbeth, killing and scheming their way to the top of the feudal heap in a medieval Scotland that looks a lot like Great Britain in the aftermath of World War I. Soldiers wear greatcoats instead of armour, and sport rifles rather than swords. Nobles and courtiers swan about in sharp-cut dinner jackets, while Tovey’s Lady Macbeth greets us in a stunning ivory dress that director (and Bell artistic director) Peter Evans and designer Anna Tregloan somehow resist smearing with blood as the murderous action of the play unfolds.
Modern productions of Shakespeare sometimes feel like a game of Mad Libs as theatre makers strive for a fresh take on the Bard’s well-worn works – “It’s Othello set in a diner in the 1950s!” – but a careful selection of setting and aesthetic can contextualise the narrative wonderfully. Here, the post-war setting is a nice touch, reminding us of both the strife that precedes the story being told as well as the greater tragedies to come – Macbeth’s downfall looms in the future like World War II did after the Treaty of Versailles.
Hazem Shammas' brilliant turn as Macbeth is underpinned by a rueful gallows humour
But in an interesting take on the material, Evans and his team choose to emphasise the supernatural elements of Macbeth more so than usual. Shakespeare’s plays have always had their share of ghosts, hobgoblins, sorcerers and faeries – and Macbeth, which kicks off with the prophesying Wyrd Sisters (Rebecca Attanasio, Isabel Burton and Eleni Cassimatis) sending our antihero off on a voyage of ambition and blood, is no exception. Yet this production is one that firmly plants one foot on either side of the line dividing our world and the next. The set, shrouded with rich, dark green drapes, feels like an otherworldly, liminal space, and scene transitions are handled by rearranging the bodies inhabiting that space; a corpse sprawled dead on the battlefield in one scene might rise and speak in the next, blurring the distinction between life and death.
And there is, of course, a lot of death in Macbeth; it may not be Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (as ever, that’s Hamlet) but it’s one of the most notoriously bloody. Here, the various assassinations are delivered with brutal efficiency, culminating in a climactic duel between Shammas’s Macbeth and Jacob Warner’s Macduff that’s fought with fixed bayonets. There’s a visceral punch to the violence that lands with considerable weight.
As does Shammas’s turn as Macbeth. In early scenes there’s a strange restraint to his performance, a reticence; his Macbeth may be a formidable soldier, but he’s a nervous ruler, uncomfortable with courtly pantomime. However, as the plot progresses and his schemes begin to unravel, he comes alive as a capering loon, a man driven to insanity by the recognition that the inevitable doom that awaits him is one of his own making. This Macbeth is a man who, stripped of everything of value in his life, embraces his fate, greeting his death at Macduff’s hands with something that almost feels like gratitude. And yet there’s considerable comedy, albeit pitch black, to his performance – a rueful gallows humour that underpins both his growing paranoia and spiralling descent, mordant laughter his only shield.
Meanwhile, Jessica Tovey gives us a markedly sensual Lady Macbeth, and the chemistry that binds the ambitious power couple together is palpable. Julia Billington impresses as Banquo, particularly in later scenes where the murdered general returns as a ghost to haunt Macbeth, while veteran actor James Lugton shows great range in two disparate roles, first bringing considerable gravitas to King Duncan, whose murder by Macbeth is the only the first of many, before pivoting to ribaldry and into physical comedy as the Porter.
It is, at this stage of the game, difficult to bring anything new to Shakespeare, but you can give your audience a fresh angle on the extant material, and that’s what Peter Evans and Bell Shakespeare have done here. As always, Macbeth traffics in themes of ambition and consequence, but by slightly shifting the focus onto notions of fate, death and inevitability, Evans has given us a fresh take, and one that’s definitely worth seeking out.
Macbeth plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 2, 2023. Tickets start at $45 and you can snap up yours here.