The weather may not have been so fair, but fair is foul, so what could be fairer than foul weather to open Riverside Lyric Ensemble’s presentation of The bloody Tragedy of Macbeth? It’s a limited but intensive season, running twice daily, from June 1 until June 5. Of course, in our highly-civilised society, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which ambition runs riot and ruins everything, as takes place in the Scottish play. That’s a joke, Joyce.

RLE’s new production is directed by Robert Graham, with a cast including Paul Armstrong (Macbeth), Celia Kelly (Lady Macbeth), John Cross (Macduff), Alan Dick (Duncan) & Nathaniel Links (Banquo), not to mention Matt Rose, Brent Kiran, Paul Royds, Clive Hobson, Arnold Luichareonkit, Mike Rochfort, Lisa Alexander, Susan Ling Young, Frederick Hama, Kailah Cabanas, Sarah Rowsell and Lana Kershaw. Phew! I’m glad we got that out of the way.

But what can a creative team, no matter how prodigious, do with Macbeth that hasn’t been done before? Set it in a contemporary industrial wasteland, of course: Mad Max meets Macbeth. And you thought the highlands had blood in them there hills. This newly-ravaged landscape provides an ideal backdrop for the heady, high-octane action of the play, and has been bolstered by Joy Burgess’ costume design & Roan Osmond’s audiovisuals. In tipping it into some future imperfect, however, the plug might have been pulled on the bathwater, but the baby remains: the text has been preserved faithfully and reverently endowed with a classical treatment, despite the contemporaneity of the set.

The counterpoint is a surprisingly potent one, which will likely unnerve, unsettle and unseat you (or at least put you on the edge of it), which is just as it should be. Sure, MasterChef can do that too, but Shakespeare predates Matt Preston, even if the getup looks to be of remarkably similar vintage. As Banquo tells us, ‘often times, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths’; so we’re to grin and bear this jangling journey.

The above is what I’d like to reflect, wanton wishful thinking; but the truth is this Macbeth is to Shakespeare as McDonald’s is to hamburgers. I can’t decide, if the bard himself were to see it, if he’d laugh, or cry. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a (small) number of things in its favour.

One of them, arguably, is the set: a dramatically elevated platform, wrought of modern materials, stairs running down either side, framing the space in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which suffices well as the battlements of a post-apocalyptic castle. Or something. There’s the rub. The ‘or something’. For the temporal location of this production is confused and, as a result, confusing. Despite the modern set, we have what might be kindly called a ‘classical’ reading, if ‘classical’ means hackneyed and caricatured. At times, it’s chuckleworthy and, indeed, I do believe I caught some surreptitious chortles. At times, the quality of performance dips well below what I’d expect of a below-average highschool showing. But the uncredited set is good, or would be, if it didn’t creak so loudly it drowns out lines.

Above the platform is a large screen, onto which are projected supers, announcing and locating scenes. Not a bad idea, but a distracting one. The screen also serves as a vehicle for tortured & bloody images: of the deceased Banquo, screaming and multiplying, haunting Macbeth; foretelling Macbeth’s demise; and so on. The images are powerful and well-executed, but compete with, rather than complement, the action. In the end, the audiovisuals are a gimmick, which serve only to proselytise Roan Osmond’s rather naked ambitions to be Baz Luhrmann (at his best).

Osmond is also in charge of lighting and, while the design, in essence, works well, spots on the actors are, at times, way too bright, killing the mood and aesthetics. If there was some metaphorical rationale for this, it’s lost on me.

Joy Burgess has obviously laboured long on costumes and, as a seamstress, has been exceptionally resourceful in utilising a very limited range of materials to turn out a diversity of garments. But they come off looking a little jokey: the two-dollar-shop plastic snake draped around Hecate’s neck was the comedic nail in the coffin. And, overall, clothing looks ugly and ill-fitting. Perhaps she hasn’t been given clear direction, as costume seems to have been caught in a time-space willy-willy, in which epochs have swirled and intermingled. Perhaps RLE’s Tardis is overdue for service, or they need a new De Lorean. Maybe this indetermination is deliberate; I don’t know. But I do know it doesn’t work: it’s just another annoying distraction. Are we going for medieval, or mid-70s biker? Post-apocalyptic, or pop-grunge? Battle-chic, or Blackadder?

While on craft, Kyle Rowling’s fight direction hasn’t taken, for the most part, with the largely inept and inexperienced cast: much of the physical conflict comes off looking like Jack Little’s World Championship Wrestling. Having said that, if one can manage to (totally) suspend disbelief, it can get you over the dramatic line.

Now to the cast. I take no glee in the following, either. Ah, what the hell! ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex me here and fill me, from crown to toe, top-full of direst cruelty; make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between the effect and it!’ ‘Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ I might as well get in first, before someone shoots the messenger, the harbinger of bad, mad tidings.

Paul Armstrong is Macbeth. As with so many associated with this production, Armstrong’s credentials can hardly be faulted. I only wish I could say the same of his role. The fact is, he seems, or seemed, utterly incapable of taking on any of the emotional range of his character, other than in the most superficial, parodical kind of way. He is completely unconvincing. He has neither the posture or carriage; his diction is uneven; there is no rhythm or momentum; no depth; no focus; no commitment to character. He is an actor, playing Macbeth. And that’s all we see. It seems to be how he sees himself. There is no pathos in his lines: ‘those he commands move only in command, nothing in love; now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief’.

John Cross, to his credit, shows early promise, as Macduff, but falls well short. He has plenty of power behind it, but his speech swings wildly between crystalline and unintelligibly cacophonous and, like Armstrong, has no facility for taking on even the vaguest semblance or visage of ‘authentic’ emotional forebearance, let alone the quintessence of a tortured soul.

Lisa Alexander presents a passable Lady Macduff & Gentlewoman. Matt Rose is a good Murderer, but is a little too constantly in-your-face loud as Malcolm; no nuance or finesse, but at least he’s clear. It looks as if Paul Royds, in various minor roles, is giving all he’s got, but that isn’t nearly enough for a mainstage in western Sydney; ‘though more training and experience might turn him into someone well worth watching.

Nathaniel Links gives a forceful, confident Banquo and his diction and projection are practically flawless. Yet he, too, failed to convince. Even in minor roles, Susan Ling Young is, from the first, charismatic and compelling, but whether through her own choices or the director’s, ends up disappointing, in relying on cliched interpretations.

Sarah Rowsell is to be complemented on her choreography, but as a witch, was lacklustre, if not greatly outshone by her co-cauldronites, Kailah Cabanas and Lana Kershaw. As in the play itself, the trouble with this production is foretold the moment the witches, in all their cackling, Stevie Nicks-attired tediousness, flag a literalistic unfolding and criminal diminution of a great work.

Fred Hama, in many & various small parts, has a wonderful timbre, but needs more experience. It’s hard to cut through his thick Kiwi accent a lot of the time, too. Clive Hobson is none-too-shabby as Ross, but when so many of your cohorts are under-performing, one’s own adequacy can be lost to context. Similarly, Mike Rochfort seems to have a feel for it, but is largely obscured, despite his generous frame, by the likes of Alan Dick, as Duncan, the Doctor and a Lord, who is unspeakably, inexcusably amateur, in the worst possible sense of the term. He’s not without experience, so perhaps he has more affinity with Stoppard or Miller. But with Shakespeare, he stumbled over lines and even those that were uttered without hesitation were given with uncertainty and were often so indistinct as to be rendered redundant. As Duncan, to say he was flat would be flattering; he was somnambulant. Dick’s ‘but a poor player, who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’. In fact, I wish he’d been killed sooner. ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’. Appears there is art, after all, in finding the mind’s construction in the face. At least artifice. Of either, here, there was none.

There were a couple of notable exceptions to this dramatic malaise. The first, the youthful Arnold Luichareonkit, as Menteith, Donalbain and a Sergeant. Save for his pointillistic Texta beard, one of the strangest creative decisions of the lot, he shows impressive aplomb, alacrity, skill and promise. He commands attention, has an ear and tongue for brogue (which was much under-indulged) and speaks beautifully.

Thank God for Lady Macbeth. Oh sure, she might be an evil-minded, manipulative, nutcracking, gold-digging wench, but that’s the beauty of her, as played by Celia Kelly: she is Lady Macbeth. Within moments, she establishes herself as cruel, cold and calculating. For the duration of it, she’s inseparable from her character. Can I pay a higher compliment? In a production full of big, black holes, she’s the star. It beggars belief that her standard is so much higher than most of her colleagues; it’s on another plane entirely. She not only looks a little reminiscent of Cate Blanchett, she is similarly capable of recreating and invigorating an overexposed character: that she finds room to do so in a done-to-death role is miraculous and ‘twould be so were it Bell, let alone RLE. She is luminous.

The cogent paradox that arises is that the quality of performance in this production seems inversely proportional to training and experience, if the resumes of the actors are to be believed.

All-in-all, it begs the question: what was Robert Graham thinking? Well, apparently, it was a conscious choice to opt for ‘no place’: a scaffolding and militaristic costumes attached to no particular time. All very well, if one were to locate the style of performance similarly, rather than succumb to the most grievous excesses of caricature (bordering on cartoonish) all too readily associated with long-dead actors and directors of a certain age and peerage. His casting decisions seem as if they might’ve been made by Macbeth at the height of his madness. There might be, as he justifiably asserts, no right or wrong way of playing or performing the play, but there is good and, as with this, bad.

This Macbeth is most certainly tragic. ‘Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Too damning? ‘What’s done is done’. ‘If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow, and which not, speak’. I’ve gazed into the madness of Riverside’s Macbeth. ‘Twill not grow. Best it drowns, without a trace, a perennial cold case, in the river adjacent.

Celia Kelly is, virtually, its only saving grace.

The details: Macbeth runs until June 5 at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. Tickets are available on (02) 8839 3399.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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