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Print Version

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sarah Delahunty
Presented by Victoria University Summer Shakespeare 2014

at Botanical Gardens: The Dell, Wellington
From 14 Feb 2014 to 1 Mar 2014

Reviewed by Charlotte Simmonds, 15 Feb 2014

I have always felt the moral of Macbeth to be that revelation is easy, interpretation hard. Maybe this applies not just to prophecies but to theatre itself. 

Sarah Delahunty's interpretation of Macbeth explains a lot of things for me that hadn't made sense before. It is set in a violent gang underworld of, as the director's note says, “any country”. (Of course, being much prone to literalism, I have to quibble with that, as the aesthetic is that of a violent white gang underworld that conjures up desert type scenes in southern USA, the Australian outback, West Auckland only if I squint quite hard, but certainly not Georgia, Eritrea, Lebanon, Kiribati, San Marino, Wellington or... Scotland, to name just a few places I can't relocate this scene to.)

The smaller mystery this production explains is why Macbeth (Jackson Coe) doesn't fully analyse the implications of the prophecy that Banquo (Ashley Holden) will sire kings until it's too late – namely, he is just too stupid. He hasn't been to Victoria University and learnt about critical thinking. Accustomed to accepting prophecies from raving lunatics at face value, he's not accustomed to metaphor and very unaccustomed to thinking too far ahead to the future. 

But the greatest unlocking of this play's enigmas for me comes from Kirsty Bruce's stunning performance as Lady Macbeth. From the moment she launches onto the stage looking like a woman in the throes of an epic breakdown and on the verge of being sectioned, I realise: she's not a manipulative, domineering, evil genius who pushes over her lily-livered husband at all; she's a victim. And in this viciously cyclic world of blood and garbage where there appears to be no hope for anyone, all her actions and a lot of her lines make a great deal of sense. 

I'm sure I'm not the first feminist to come up with the following interpretation, but this is a revelation for me. What has happened in her childhood to produce such a dysfunctional adult? In this horrible underworld it is easy to conclude that she has been subjected to repeated abuse by her father. I have no idea if this is anything anyone involved in this production has thought about and whether or not this is a consciously delivered playing of the character, but this is how I read the performance, and being an academic, I really want to talk about it! 

Lady Macbeth now has an added motivation for killing Duncan – he resembles her father – yet she can't go through with it. Watching him as he sleeps brings back the full fear, guilt and shame associated with her father and it is her terror, not her love, that prevents her killing him. “Why do you keep alone?” she asks Macbeth, horrified that anyone could enjoy being alone, a state which is again terrifying to her on account of the many nightmares and hallucinations she suffers as a result of her post-traumatic stress disorder.

In fact, she has married Macbeth in the hopes that he will be able to save her from a situation she's been trying to escape from as a child, but he repeatedly fails to do so and is instead being steadily drawn into her world instead of pulling her out. The manic pixie dream girl who initially enchanted him with her impulsiveness, naïveté and need of rescue is now simply a bad manic dream. 

The house they live in is haunted by ghosts of the past and aggressive memories. It seems they have not left Lady Macbeth's childhood home, and the memories of her parents follow her everywhere, and now, having murdered a man she projected the image of her father onto, she is both re-traumatised with the memories of her youth, but also dismayed at finding that this ‘solution', like her marriage to Macbeth, has failed too. She becomes more desperate than ever. Is there really no way out? 

Lady Macbeth is well used to visual and aural hallucinations. When the ghost of Banquo appears, Macbeth – as a seasoned gang member who has seen plenty of treachery, betrayal and bloody murder before – is most horrified at the realisation that he is slipping further into the insane world of his wife. Lady Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo too, but it is so commonplace to her that she ignores it, and these apparitions are nothing compared to the far worse images she can't get out of her mind. Bloody ghosts are her bedroom furniture. For Macbeth, they are too much acid taken at the wrong time. 

“You make me strange /  Even to the disposition that I owe, / When now I think you can behold such sights, / And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks, / When mine are blanch'd with fear,” says Macbeth, only now coming to an understanding of what his wife has been living with for years on end. 

With no psychiatric help, and no one in this gang world being willing or astute enough to contact outside authorities, Lady Macbeth regresses further into her childhood. Her nightmares become worse. This is really far outside of the gang doctor's area of basic expertise, who knows she needs a different doctor but whose hands are metaphorically tied. 

Lady Macbeth washes her hands over and over again; a rape victim trying to become clean, trying to wash away the blood of her first abuse. She has spent her life haunted by a smell that seems to follow her everywhere. She knows all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten her because she has tried them. As a sleepwalker, reliving her childhood, she hears her mother telling her to “wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale” and to go to bed.

Lady Macbeth's mother was fully aware of the abuses being perpetrated against the child but, equally trapped in the gang world, she became complicit to the abuse in being unable to protect her daughter. The best advice the mother could offer her was to tell her to go to bed, and so in reliving these memories, Lady Macbeth speaks to herself in the words of her mother. “Come, come, come, come, give me your hand: what's done cannot be undone: to bed, to bed, to bed.”

And of course Macbeth and the lady have no children, probably due to sustained injuries.

Yes, none of this is explicit in the text or in the programme notes but it works, and it worked so well for me that when Lady Macbeth finally killed herself, and having already suspected by now that she'd lived in a constant semi-suicidal state since she was a teenager, I felt total joyous relief that she had finally been able to escape from this horrible life that no external charitable organisation had been able to penetrate. I thought, “Yes! She made it! She got away! Hurrah! She's finally safe!”

For the rest of the characters, there is really no hope, and the play is a rather unsubtle reminder than while our cushioned Wellington lives are certainly habitable for women, the world has historically been no place for women and that even today significantly large areas of the world remain so.

Bronwyn Ensor's  terrified Seyton brings home the realisation that if 10,000 English soldiers are on their way, there is nothing for a woman to hope for but a quick death that isn't preceded by a brutal rape. The murder of Macduff's family is likewise terrifying.

I wonder how they will solve the play's ending. In a gang world there can be no such thing as a good king and the relief that comes when Macbeth is replaced with the good guy, Malcolm, in traditional interpretations of this play, can never come in a subculture that operates beneath the standard social and political structure. There will never be a good guy. There will never be a king able to hold onto his dynasty for generations on end. How do they solve it? They do! And it's even with a wry sense of humour. 

The aesthetic of the play is beautiful, even if I can't place it in “any country”. The set (Anna Lowe), costuming and makeup (Seraphina Tausilia) is all fantastic and in the gardens, the midges that come out and play in Lydia Easter's lighting arrangement seem to come on cue to accentuate the desolation and despair. I even wonder if Jack Hooker, the sound designer, has managed to train the kaka to come in with their charmingly ugly caw at opportune moments. 

There are too many wonderful moments in this production for me to list them all: the hilariously comic moments that the first half seemed packed with, both in the text itself and with visual gags added by director and cast; the heart-rending misery of the second half when it sinks in that despite initial comedy, there is no way this can end well; the fight between Macbeth and Macduff, with Darryn Woods' brilliant embittered delivery of my favourite lines, “Despair thy charm; / And let the angel whom thou still hast serv'd / Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd,”; the wonderful troupe of witches and spirits that make you wonder what sane and rational person would not be pushing with all his might to do the exact opposite of anything the witches say; and a script and cast that despite being set in this trashy, lowbrow, uneducated grime are clearly anything but. 

This is a very intelligent and moving rendering of Macbeth that I find deeply affecting and in parts terrifying, bringing up my childhood and evoking the feelings I had when I first heard of the Border Reivers: sheer panic. A fitting memory, and a fitting play to be watching at a time when Scotland is about to vote on whether or not they will break up the 307 year old union with England and go independent.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);


David Geary posted 15 Feb 2014, 07:20 PM

Hey Charlotte - sublime review, an interpretation I've never heard before but it all makes sense. 

John Smythe posted 16 Feb 2014, 11:24 AM / edited 17 Feb 2014, 06:15 PM

Having seen Macbeth last night and consulted the director, I've corrected Charlotte's review above by ascribing the terror at the approach of troops to Bronwyn Ensor's Seyton, rather than Lexie Kirkconnell Kawana's the Gentlewoman. In Charlotte's defence, character names are rarely mentioned aloud in this text and what with the many gender reversals (always fair enough in a student production especially), you'd have to know the play very well to pick who is who on the run.

The ensemble work is terrific throughout. Other than those mentioned by Charlotte, individual performances also worth praising, in my opinion, are Ashley Holden's intently focused Banquo, Maddie McIntyre's Lady Macduff and whoever plays her son/daughter (uncredited as such) … but really there are no weak links. Ruth Corkill makes an impact as Siward and Drew Brice Ford's Malcolm offers reassurance some equilibrium may be restored (although in gangland, as Charlotte notes, this is a relative thing; maybe Malcolm will have the nouse to reap the profits of the drugs trade without getting hooked by them).  

By and large I buy the gangland aesthetic although I do think Macbeth should be smoking meth rather than dak, given his progression from sociopath to psychopath. And I have to say that speaking blank verse without acknowledging the rhythm and metre is like doing opera without the music: it becomes stripped of emotional content that cannot be carried by words alone.  

For me and my companions, the Witches played as screaming banshees from the underworld becomes tiresome after a while, despite the indefatigable commitment of the vast contingent involved. One or two are so indulgent I'm sure they'll look back in embarrassment if they take their acting further in years to come. (One companion felt it amounted to bad taste depictions of the mentally unwell and felt offended by them.) Meanwhile I predict some will lose their voices before the season is out unless they learn to pitch them properly,

But what's missing, regarding the Witches, most is the credibility – to Macbeth – of their prophecies and I can't help thinking of the various new-age methodologies for predicting the future that might have been better utilised within – or on the fringe of – the gangland context: astrology charts, tarot cards, the entrails of chickens …

That said, I concur with the substance of Charlotte's review and recognise the value of a production that produces such a response.

Overall it must be said once again what a wonderful thing it is that so many young actors can perform Shakespeare with such clarity, energy, intelligence and commitment. And there's nothing like a new interpretation that generates robust debate.

As for the weather coming right in Wellington just in time – and a full moon rising on the second half with perfect timing … Brilliant. But bring layers and rugs no matter how warm it is when you leave home.