Performed in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens, the Australian Shakespeare Company’s rendition of the famous ‘Scottish Play’ is an excellence piece of intimate theatre. Macbeth is acted in front of a small audience on the Southern Cross Lawn, far enough away from the city that you can see a smattering of stars beneath the light pollution and you are more likely to be interrupted by the squabbles of bats than the honks and engines of irritable drivers.
The play features Nathanial Dean (Underbelly, Puberty Blues) as the titular character and Alison Whyte (The Dressmaker, The Doctor Blake Mysteries) as his power-hungry wife, Lady Macbeth, a captivating pair as they portray a slow but steady descent into madness. Dean’s rendition of the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,’ soliloquy is the slow and drawn out musing of a desperate man. It is ironic (and almost breaks the fourth wall) when he relates to the audience that, “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/and is heard no more”, describing himself in that moment as much as a metaphor for life. Whyte excels in the role of Lady Macbeth, with her final scene of sleepwalking and washing blood off her hands culminating in her guttural screams as guilt consumes her.
Annabelle Tudor (Puffs or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, Twelfth Night) deftly navigates the role of one of the witches but whose brief appearance as Lady Macduff is harrowing and stands out as one of the greatest performances of the night. The fate of Lady Macduff, surely not the first instance in popular culture of fridging, but potentially the greatest, is one of the most tragic in the plot threads of the play.
The casting of Anna Burgess (Olivia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) as Malcolm, the oldest of the late King Duncan’s sons, was perhaps a strange choice and though they did not attempt to hide her long hair or put a fake moustache on her, it was clear from the onset that she was playing a male character. Having previously played one of the witches in a past production of Macbeth, Burgess navigates the character of Malcolm with strength and commands the stage as much as any of her male counterparts.
The Porter’s scene, played by Syd Brisbane (Fawlty Towers, Much Ado About Nothing), provides some much-needed comedy, stumbling around and despairing of a hangover, pissing off the stage and engaging the audience in knock-knock jokes. Reviewers beware: he may sit in your lap.
There are no framing devices used to guide the viewers or attempts to modernise the story as is so tempting to do when revisiting a Shakespearian classic such as this. Excepting the casting of female actors, the dropped Scottish accent—which is helpful on the ears of those not so well acquainted with the Elizabethan dialogue—and the inclusion of smoke and sound machines, this is essentially the same performance that would have been seen at the Globe in 1604 when the play was first written. But the story is far from the need of updating. The tale of greed, betrayal and lust of power is still recognisable in the newspaper articles we read today. The perennial themes are no doubt what makes this play worth revisiting centuries after its initial writing.
Suitable for high school students and above, there are strong themes of violence. The audience was extremely diverse in age, many had come in groups of three and up and enjoyed a picnic and wine or hot chocolate, either brought from home or bought at one of the vendors, before the performance. The atmosphere in the small grove of trees and grass was relaxed yet vibrant. It was memorable summer night of open-air theatre. Do bring food and drinks and a blanket to sit on, alternatively chairs are available to hire for $5. Do check the weather beforehand and dress accordingly, a warm summers day can turn chilly when the sun goes down.
You can find the location of the performance in the Royal Botanical Gardens on Birdwood Avenue, opposite the Shrine of Remembrance. Tickets are available until February 23rd and can be bought online at shakespeareaustralia.com.au