When British director Michael Attenborough took on the challenge of translating a play set in 11th Century Scotland to the modern-day subtropical climes of Queensland, it turned out not to be such a stretch after all. As if lured by some supernatural force for atmospheric effect, storms rolled through Brisbane on the opening night of Macbeth at QPAC's Playhouse, forcing theatre-goers to brandish umbrellas and battle the elements as a prelude to this much-anticipated production.
The play opens with the three writhing witches (Ellen Bailey, Lauren Jackson and Courtney Stewart) who prophesise Macbeth's ascent to the throne. Seductive and repulsive in equal measure, the witches' revelations propel Macbeth (Jason Klarwein) and his scheming wife (Veronica Neave) along the bloody path that sees this hyper-ambitious man first slay the current king Duncan and then anyone else who stands in his way.
Macbeth is a fight to the death on literal and metaphorical levels. Photograph by Rob Maccoll. Queensland Theatre Company image.
As the action unfolds, audience members are exposed to extreme and bloody violence but that's not the reason I broke out in goosebumps several times over more than two hours of action. Rather, as Attenborough explains, Macbeth 'shines a torch into the deepest recesses of the human psyche'. Just by sitting in this darkened theatre, we become unwitting accomplices to Macbeth's descent into ever-darker states of mind. The horror in the play is thus not contained in the swordfights, but rather the emergence of evil: 'O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!' the lead character cries.
Macbeth is leavened with humour, too, which largely arises from Macbeth's increasingly bizarre behaviour as he begins to see the ghosts of those he's killed. I enjoyed witnessing the palpable chemistry between lead actors Jason Klarwein (Macbeth) and Veronica Neave (Lady Macbeth) - for Macbeth is a love story too. 'Theirs is one of the happiest marriages in Shakespeare,' says Attenborough. 'The agony of the play comes in watching them move apart.'
Macbeth was visually and aurally delectable, with pulsing sound effects, a deep backdrop of giant gnarled trees and lighting that evoked a sense of thick, steamy air. The actors dressed in simple, sparse clothing, presenting as unshaven, long-haired and wild. The only colour appears after the first murder, when Lady Macbeth dons a scarlet gown, her gathering madness evident even then. Such choices were made, says Attenborough, 'because people living on the edge of survival in this climate (Queensland) would be sticky, hot and wearing very little.'
Do you need to be familiar with the story of Macbethto appreciate the play? It helps, but isn't strictly necessary. Attenborough and his team of energetic actors have created an accessible production which is fairly self-contained. 'As a director, you have to assume a virgin view of (the story),' he says. In acknowledgement that some Elizabethan turns of phrase can be tough for modern audiences to comprehend, he admits that 'if the lines don't serve their purpose, I have no sentimentality about changing them ... I think Shakespeare would approve. If there are references in there that (contemporary audiences) have no hope of getting, he'd be saying, 'Cut it out, cut it out'.'
The current season of Macbeth runs until 13 April 2014.
Energy levels in rehearsals were high. Image by Stephen Henry.