The opening night performance of Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Macbeth was greeted with a standing ovation by some members of the audience. Others were left wondering what it was that had excited them, and why they too couldn’t share their enthusiasm.
Directed by Peter Evans in what has now become the Bell Shakespeare house style, this production is not only beautiful to look at, but also assumes, not unreasonably, that the audience is familiar with the play.
Anna Tregloan has provided a luscious setting of forest-green velvet drapery, artfully arranged so that the actors can enter and exit the stage quickly and almost invisibly. Elegant chairs, side-tables and lamps provide a decidedly 1920’s look, supported by glamourous twenties costumes for the ladies and tuxedos and suits for the men.
Of course there are the ubiquitous Bell Shakespeare great- coats, worn by both the women and men. These great-coats have obviously been pulled from stock wardrobe, don’t represent any particular period, and because they are mismatched and ill-fitting, work against the otherwise fastidious design.
The entire play is performed within the single setting, often with most of cast on stage observing the action. Throughout, there are only minimal costume changes and no indication of where, when and why the action is taking place.
Therefore, it’s often near-impossible to follow the story or work out which character the actor is portraying, or even the significance of that character to the story. The result is that the production simply becomes a series of set-pieces, where the actors step forward, deliver their lines, and then fade back into the background.
Nor is it made any clearer by gender-blind casting, or by casting actors so distinctive in one role that when they re-appear as another, it’s not clear if they’re the same character in a different costume, or a different character altogether.
In this production all the characters are played by 10 actors. With the exception of Hazem Shammas (Macbeth), Jessica Tovey (Lady Macbeth) and Jacob Warner (Macduff), Rebecca Attanasio, Julia Billington, Isabel Burton, Jeremi Campese, Eleni Cassimatis, James Lugton, Kyle Morrison, all play two or three characters each, with varying degrees of success, mainly due to the reasons outlined above.
As Macbeth, Hazem Shammas offers an idiosyncratic and over-wrought interpretation of the role, in which athleticism often overshadows the beauty of the language. Elegant and fierce as Lady Macbeth, Jessica Tovey imbues her interpretation with an unsettling sexuality which keeps the audience guessing as to her motives.
Startling lighting and sound effects, particularly for the three witches in the opening scenes, and a dangerous looking fight with bayonets later in the play, provide memorable moments, but this is a production likely to appeal more to educated Shakespearean enthusiasts than to those perhaps seeking to share in their enthusiasm.
Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 15 April 2023
Season continues to 22 April 2023
Image: Hazem Shammas as Macbeth and Jessica Tovey as Lady Macbeth – photo by Brett Boardman
Review: Bill Stephens OAM