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The highs and lows of Shakespeare

‘Macbeth’ at Melbourne Theatre Company attempts to draw on the tension between high and low art

Photograph by Jeff Busby

Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be vulgar. So Simon Phillips’ astoundingly vulgar production of Macbeth at the Melbourne Theatre Company (until 15 July), at least on the face of it, isn’t out of step with the spirit of the play.

Elizabethan theatre existed in a weird bubble between royal privilege and low origins: protected by the Crown, it was under constant attack by clerics until the Puritans succeeded in closing theatres by edict in 1642 for promoting “lascivious Mirth and Levity”.

“Do [theatres] not induce whoredom and uncleanness?” thundered Philip Stubbes in his 1583 pamphlet The Anatomie of Abuses. “For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly … to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes … is wonderful to behold.”

There’s a lot of room in Shakespeare for the popular, even for crass extravagance, and Macbeth is indeed wonderful to behold. Phillips gives us extravagance in spades, with a Macbeth-as-superhero production that leaves no stage effect unexplored, no prop unhefted, no nonsensical climactic punch-up unpunched.

Calling Jai Courtney back to the stage to play Macbeth after six years’ absence making his name in Hollywood movies such as Terminator: Genisys and Suicide Squad needn’t be merely a cynical, if extremely successful, ploy to sell tickets.

What Shakespeare can’t be is bloodless, and this production is as bloodless as any CGI explosion dreamed up by Marvel or DC.

Teasingly, there’s also a nagging sense of what might have been. Phillips’ most successful Shakespeare, his 2010 production of Richard III, married the director’s undoubted theatrical flair with a deeply intelligent, passionate performance by Ewan Leslie. It made exhilarating theatre. For Macbeth he has a cast that includes Robert Menzies (Duncan, the Porter) and Jane Montgomery Griffiths (First Witch). It is cast – very successfully – across race, with Rodney Afif, Kamil Ellis, Shareena Clanton and Khisraw Jones-Shukoor playing various roles.

This casting creates a sense of depth and human variousness that is left sadly unexploited. You get glimpses: Menzies playing the Porter is one of the few occasions where the language comes alive, and the murder of Lady Macduff (Clanton), staged in a contemporary domestic setting complete with children’s drawings on the fridge, is the only time that the horror of Macbeth’s tyranny comes home. A little more attention to meaning and performance, and a little less to overdressing the spectacle, and this Macbeth might have been magnificent, instead of magnificently terrible.

An odd literalness haunts this production. For example, Macbeth, in riding boots and 19th-century military jacket, meets his hoodied ice-addict murderers in the royal stables to arrange the death of Banquo (I suppose because of the line, “Ride you this afternoon?”). Presumably because Macbeth references dogs – “in the catalogue ye go for men; / As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs … are clept / All by the name of dogs” – Macbeth picks up two dead dogs, quite clearly fluffy toys, that happen to be hanging around and petulantly casts them to the floor.

This entirely meaningless gesture left me wondering why there should be dog corpses in the stables (horses get agitated around dead things). Literalness is catching, and often distracting. In another scene, the otherwise puzzling presence of a glamorous kitchen sink onstage seems to be explained by Macbeth’s need to wash his hands of Duncan’s blood. Likewise in the sound design: when the owl is mentioned, as it is mentioned often, the soundtrack obligingly gives us a shriek. The mention of horses signals neighing. And so on.

On the plus side, there’s lots of fire onstage – burning cars, candelabras – and every word is audible. Courtney makes a decent if monochromatic Macbeth, a bluff career soldier led astray by his hyper-ambitious wife (Geraldine Hakewill). For all the glamour on show – Hollywood gowns, luxury dining rooms and bedrooms – there’s little sense of the erotic between the couple, their passions stated rather than communicated. But maybe they were just squashed by the score that inevitably swells to signal every emotional moment.

This lack of erotic frisson points to the real vulgarity of the production. Vulgar is derived from vulgus, meaning “the common people”, which over the centuries has come to mean obscenity and coarseness, or a lack of good (upper class) taste. In culture, this has led to a continuing tension between “high” and “low” art. The critic Erich Auerbach, in his heroic work Mimesis, contends that all Western culture has been about the dialogue between these different modes of representation.

Shakespeare’s vitality comes essentially from his marrying of the “high” and the “low”, the melding of courtly sophistication with the sensual immediacy of the everyday. What we get in this production is a meeting of the culturally vulgar (the superhero movie) with the aesthetically vulgar (an empty excess reminiscent of Trump’s America). The gestures towards contemporary relevance – hoodied murderers, homeless witches in abandoned cars, militarised violence – exist as decoration, stylistic flourishes that amount to a theatrical version of Zoolander’s egregious fashion label Derelicte.

The warmth of human feeling that is the gift of vulgarity is, aside from glimpses such as the Porter’s scene, mostly absent, but so too is the feeling that emerges from a rigorous attention to, for example, the poetics of language.

Instead of emotional engagement, you get Ian McDonald’s score. It’s the obligatory ear-numbing soundtrack that blasts through every interminable superhero climax, covering up all the holes. After two hours of this sensual assault you walk out limp with aural fatigue, having felt nothing at all.

About the author Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. In 2009 she was named Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year for her performance criticism. Her most recent novels are The Bone Queen and The River and the Book, which was named a Notable Book of 2016 by the Children's Book Council of Australia.

@alisoncroggon
 
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