Dan Spielman and Lizzie Schebesta in Macbeth | Drama Theatre, Sydney

He’s a puzzling fellow, this Macbeth. Having shown himself to be brave in battle beyond all reasonable, mortal, typical measure and having been duly honoured for such and embraced by his king, he shows himself to be credulous, vain and weak, succumbing to some airy-fairy soothsaying by a witch (or three) tantamount to the accuracy reflected by MX astrology and the whisperings of his gold-digging wife.

It’s a strange, apparent contradiction. The kind which shows itself to be, in practice, in the affairs of men, to be, ironically, utterly consistent with the notion of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, directed by heir apparent, associate artistic director Peter Evans, got off to a rocky start, with half the cast struck down by a mystery illness. Nothing, apart from lunch, seems to have been lost, however, and Evans ambit claim that they’ve come back stronger is credible.

The set is a veritable heath, although perhaps somewhat Australianised. It’s damp, cold and foreboding and an ideal setting for the cold-blooded action that ensues. Unlike previous Bell Shakespeare, which has seen more blood than an early Peter Jackson schlock-horror epic, the ‘wine of life’ has been kept to an effectual minimum, which will likely be a relief for anyone suffering from anything similar to that which the cast have surmounted.

From a distance, Dan Spielman in the title role looks a little like Kenneth Branagh. This is, I should think, a compliment in itself, but the comparison extends to his talent for the role. His presence in the first half of the show is low-key, but ramps up after interval, when the pressure becomes too much for the not-quite-invincible, would-be king. This trajectory works especially well, since it depicts the man tilting at being a god, only to be crucified.

From the get-go, the menace is there, embodied in Macbeth’s palpable, mounting anxiety. Spielman and others have endowed themselves, or have been endowed, with a vocabulary of physical mannerisms and stylised postures which are undeniably contrived, yet which seem to work. Though I can’t imagine them doing so outside the eerie realm of the Scottish play.

I could never quite work out why Shakespeare specifies ‘a desert place’ for the opening scene. Perhaps he meant deserted. Perhaps he knew precious little about Scottish geography. In any case, the aforementioned pseudo-heath works exceptionally well and has been superbly realised. Perhaps is down to the aftermath of the GFC: whatever the reason, Shakespeare’s witches in triplicate, so horribly, warily, nakedly realised by Polanski, have been reduced to one, albeit with a voice synthesised in a chillingly similar way to Regan’s in The Exorcist (if you’ll forgive another cinematic aside). Lizzie Schebesta gives good witch: not at all warty, but sexy; disturbed; possessed. A cotcase who’s apparently flown o’er the cuckoo’s nest.

Bell stalwart Colin Moody is a suitably tall, rusticated Duncan, a tower of regal strength about to be cut down. I’m not sure Moody is cookie-cut for the role, but who’s to say how a king should look, or sound. After all, like Australian (or any) prime ministers they’ve come in all shapes and sizes.

Ivan Donato makes for an energetic Macduff, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by his delayed, somewhat contained grief, on learning of the slaughter of his wife and children. It was, for mine, just a little bit too wrought, rather than channelled.

Katie-Jean Harding, as his lady, was the very picture of frustration and torment, in trying to reconcile her husband’s unannounced fleeing to England, leaving her and the kids behind. You can see her wrestle with the very questions (of cowardice, ostensibly) she’d clearly prefer to avoid.

Gareth Reeves’ Banquo is a fittingly unsuspecting mate for the P-plate treachery of the robot-controlled Macbeth. His relationships are concisely defined; his unflinching character drawn with precision. The rest of the cast, including Hazem Shammas’ Ross, Paul Reichstein’s Lennox, Robert Jago’s Malcolm and Jason Chong’s Angus are especially surefooted, too.

But nothing and none can outdo the remarkable, incandescent Kate Mulvany. Her vocal clarity, power and colour is utterly her own and, while she brings much the same kind of leanings to each new role, her stock-in-trade has more than enough adaptability to carry her handsomely over each new dramatic threshold. It may be redundant to observe it, but she’s a world-class actor who seems to have prematurely and precociously hit her Mirren or Smith or Redgrave-like stride (I could name other classy broads). One can only but marvel as to what might yet come. And we haven’t even discussed her dramaturgical propensities, which are equally mature and honed to a rapier-edge.

Bell’s Macbeth is a stylish way in which to launch the company’s 2012 season and bolster its already legendary reputation. My foreign-born, ESL companion, having only previously seen a worst-of-all-possible Macbeths, was inspired to proclaim his newfound desire to read the play. For him, it’s a case of the ridiculous becoming sublime; or foul, suddenly, resoundingly, resplendently fair.

If Bell can achieve the veritably evangelical, it’s more than meeting its brief.

The details: Macbeth plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 12 — tickets on the venue website. Seasons follow in Canberra (May 17 – June 2) and Melbourne (June 7-23). Tickets

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%