By Bell Shakespeare. Canberra Theatre Centre. 18 May 2012

Following the success of Julius Caesar in 2011, Bell Shakespeare is back with a second murderous tragedy at the Canberra Theatre Centre with its thrilling take on Macbeth.

An accessible version of the work, this production is a fine compromise between tradition and adaptation – keeping true to Shakespeare’s words while modifying characters, costumes and storyline to create a tight two-hour performance with an 11 person cast.

Instantly the audience is transported to a cold and foggy heath in Scotland through the innovative set design (Anna Cordingley) and the dense, nightmarish lighting (Damien Cooper) which hosted scenes tender, passionate and bloody under the cover of a persistent evening gloom. The use of an expansive mirror on the ceiling also provided a disorienting sensation, while at the same time magnifying the drama unfolding and creating something like a psychological force field.

Even though it’s based in Scotland, this production has Made in Australia all over it; donning skinny jeans, shirt and cardigan (and Aussie accent) and looking like he just stepped out of a trendy Melbourne bar, Kenneth Branagh lookalike, Dan Spielman (Offspring, The Secret Life of Us), gave a down to earth and incredibly likeable portrayal of the treacherous General Macbeth, while asserting a commanding, natural presence on stage.

With Macbeth accompanied by his partner in crime, the Lady Macbeth (Kate Mulvany), the two are led down the garden path to their grisly fate by the three witches (all played by Lizzie Schebesta) who predict his rise to King in a vision.

Convinced of the truth of the vision, Macbeth and his wife then kill the reigning Monarch and plunge into a vortex of tyranny, murder and deceit in order to stay in power, while being tormented and ultimately destroyed by the ghosts of their victims.

Taking a sympathetic approach to the lead characters, Director Peter Evans, hinting at the possibility of the loss of a child between Macbeth and his wife, allowed the humanity of the usually demonised pair to surface throughout.

The possibility that they are wracked with and deeply bonded by grief, with Lady Macbeth feeling desperate to fill the void, makes it a little easier to explain why the pair would go to such great lengths to obtain the throne.

It is in their later scenes when they are at their most disturbed that Spielman and Mulvany shine. Moments like these transcend Shakespeare’s fine words and the deep torment and guilt become recognisable even to a novice of his work. 

Mulvany is her usual brassy self, providing a strong and sultry female lead as well as most of the comic relief in this otherwise sombre storyline. The chemistry between her and Spielman is absolutely fierce, with the intimacy cultivated readily apparent.

Equally enthralling is Schebesta as the deranged witches, whose delicate beauty and vulnerability throws the traditional hag stereotype out the window, instead creating ethereal creatures seemingly afflicted by involuntary otherworldly visitations. The voice distortion was also incredibly effective in transforming the otherwise diminutive Schebesta into the frenzied oracles.

The dark horse of the evening was Ivan Donato as Macduff, who rode the fringes of the play and slowly encroached on the increasingly claustrophobic space, upping the intensity until his victorious moment as hero and slayer of the misguided villain in the final moments.

The slow motion technique, also employed in Julius Caesar, in which the supporting cast faded from a scene without anyone having to leave the stage, was also effective at dramatizing key moments and creating some visual variety. Equally, Kelly Ryall’s understated but tormenting score was fundamental to setting the scene for the Macbeth’s impending madness.

Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a sensory-rich, slightly surreal production that offers the opportunity to tune out the words of Shakespeare if they get too overwhelming and simply enjoy the aesthetic ride, while still offering much to the Shakespeare connoisseur. The director has obviously juggled a few elements here to realise his vision for the show, but it’s managed to land spectacularly on its feet.

Deborah Hawke

When: 17 May to 2 June
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre