Staging a scene is so passé

This commentary on the recent STC Macbeth has been sitting in my drafts until it has become hopelessly out of date, simply because I can’t think how to make it sound other than a complete hatchet job, which is not an accurate representation of how I responded to the production. There was much in it that was solidly professional, and a few moments that really sparked. Everyone showed admirable vocal control, and the pacing was tight and unflagging. My seemingly extensive criticisms arise not because the show was bad, but because, given the resources it had, it had no excuse not to be more. So please take this not as a review, but as a reflection on certain problems that arise in the directorial process and how someone might think through them more deeply, and as a call for all major productions to have a decent dramaturg on board.

Replica of C15th Scottish sword.

Right at the beginning of the current Sydney Theatre Company production of Macbeth the bloody sergeant chugs and spits a mouthful of red liquid onto the table she is sitting behind, before beginning her lines. The little puddle of blood then sits there until late in Act 3, when it is covered by a tablecloth, unremarked-upon. This was somewhat emblematic of the whole production. A gesture towards symbolism, towards the visceral, or to envisioning something a different way, but without really committing to see what it could do. I wanted to see someone use that bloodstain, draw with it, mess it or themselves up, make it say something. Instead, something that was begun was never really explored.

Even when things got messier later on it was in a tentative way, and then the curtain was dropped and invisible minions cleaned up. It wasn’t as if the stage blood and the shaving cream and the fake flowers contributed anything that extended the stock catalogue of imagery from previous productions of Shakespeare’s Violent Bits. This is a photo of some acting students of mine in their final year Shakespeare production, in the scene of Queen Margaret killing Richard Duke of York, in Henry VI. Not every visual in a play can be a first-press invention, of course, but if a student production from six years ago is doing it, and your own company did it in a prominent production five years ago and it already looked derivative of Luk Perceval’s Belgian Shakespeare work even then, you might want to try out something new.

Young woman pours stage blood from a bottle over a kneeling man.

Winter of Our Discontent, directed by Jason Byrne, Dublin 2008

However, it does need to be the right new, and new for a real reason. Much was made in the advance publicity about the artistic and economic gamble made in this production of putting in temporary seating so the auditorium could be used as staging space. However, it didn’t really get used until Banquo’s murder, and the really interesting revelations of sitting behind the proscenium – the tech ladders, lighting grids and wing balconies, were not even lit, let alone employed. The director might have done better to use the first few rows of the regular auditorium, thus creating a traverse stage, which is always a very dynamic configuration. Why go to so much trouble to rebuild the seating in the same shape (a single rectangular, graded block) as the original?

A traverse stage might have also provided the impetus for the director to let the actors get up on their feet. This is the third high-profile production of Shakespeare I have seen in the past few years (STC War of the Roses 2009, Belvoir Hamlet 2013) in which large chunks of the play were recited rather than moved. I do not know why directors are going through a phase where they feel that it is not part of their job description to actually stage a difficult, large-group scene. Is it laziness? Timidity? Fear they won’t find an effective way to do it, or arrogance in thinking they shouldn’t have to? Yes, it is tough to get many bodies on stage without blocking sight lines, or ending up with the dreaded upstage semi-circle, and those are often the most tedious days in the rehearsal room, nutting out the technicalities of using the space. But it’s part of the job.

The director here at times seemed to have no idea what visual picture he had created. Paula Arundell as Banquo was given a knife to hold throughout the first few scenes that she did nothing with, they may as well have yelled out that they didn’t know what kind of world they were representing, or that the knife was plastic, it was so clearly not a danger to anyone. All it did do was look utterly jarring when she embraced Duncan. Approaching the King holding a knife is just such a wrong, wrong image. It was only when Arundell played Lady MacDuff that the possibilities for direct, natural communication came out. It was a refreshing moment to see her exchange with John Gaden, playing her little boy. Suddenly here were two actors who were really talking to each other, alive in the moment. Such a squandering of resources to have got hold of Arundell for a production, and not have her play Lady Macbeth. Instead, Melita Jurisic used the same affected, low-pitched, drawn-out phrasing that she used for Goneril in Kosky’s production of Lear. This actress has been giving exactly the same performance for fifteen years, and it saps the life out of anyone in a scene with her, who cannot possibly respond with spontaneity to such artificial cues.

Unfortunately, this weighed down much of Hugo Weaving’s time on stage, despite his undoubted capturing of all the qualities you hope to see in a Macbeth. What was fascinating was seeing how Weaving’s entire bearing lifts as soon as he gets a sword in his hand. Around act four he was allowed a serious, old-fashioned broad sword to carry and swing about, and suddenly it was as if a fire had been lit in him. The famous speeches which had sounded too carefully rehearsed became urgent and compelling.

Kip Williams has yet to learn how far you can go on stage, and where you can take actors to. He has not developed an eye for which ideas are getting his actors into a vibrant working place, where they can use their strengths, and which are bogging them down or shutting off their growth into a living, thrilling character. Sydney as a whole needs a moratorium on blood poured from bottles or spat out, glitter rain falling from the flies, rehearsal-clothes costuming, and people who should be interacting sitting or standing still and reciting to the front. It also needs to start paying good money to good dramaturgs who will bring the directors of these expensive productions back to the text and screw their courage to the sticking place until they can articulate a purpose for everything they do.

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