The Border Project & Sydney Theatre Company @ Odeon Theatre
2:00pm, Sun 28 Feb 2010
Here’s an easy way to get me interested in a bit of theatre: make it Shakespeare. Better still, make it Hamlet or Macbeth, and I’ll be first in line for a ticket. So when I’m leafing through the Festival Guide, see “Macbeth”, and then notice the faux warning at the bottom of the page – “Occupational Health and Safety nightmare” – well, I’m there.
But then I notice that The Border Project are involved, and I hesitate a little. I really didn’t enjoy Trouble on Planet Earth a couple of years ago; while I certainly appreciated the concept and presentation, it wound up disappointing me no end. Countering that hesitation, though, was the presence of a Sunday matinee; thus, I would up wandering down The Parade towards the Odeon on a warm and sunny day, perfect for the teeming thousands gathered for the Norwood Food and Wine Festival.
And you know how I feel about crowds.
Still, after elbowing my way through the crowd, after consuming some sub-standard salt-and-pepper squid, and after bumping into an old family friend in the foyer, I took my seat in the dimly lit theatre. The stage was sparse, the air felt heavy and slightly foggy. And, as the play starts, it is evident that this is very much a modern production; the Witches are portrayed as lecherous friends (the gaudy bearded witch was ace), Fleance is a dummy, and Cameron Goodall’s Macbeth is casually dressed in jeans and a shirt. The live guitar lends a mysterious, murky ambience to proceedings; pre-recorded bass beats can be felt through the seats.
But what also becomes evident is that this is very much a meta-production. It’s not simply focussed on The Bard’s play; The Border Project have taken the superstitions that have surrounded (and tragedies that have befallen) The Scottish Play and made them a fundamental part of the production. Events that have affected other productions are reproduced here; fires start onstage, actors trip and fall, large beams fall from above, light fittings crash onto the stage. A ladder is leant against the back wall, actors wander underneath it and receive glares from their colleagues. There’s even a large square painted onstage that everyone tries to avoid stepping into, sometimes to exaggerated comic effect.
But these elements are superfluous, gimmicks, that periodically appear… they’re amusing diversions, and a delightful nod to the history of the play. They add little more than comic relief… The Bard’s work manages just fine by himself. Having said that, they don’t distract from the production… but add to the flavour of the performance.
The bulk of the delight for me, however, lay in the aforementioned modernity of the production. The plentiful murders in the script are enacted by a firing squad of paintball-riflemen, after a transparent mesh screen drops from the roof to protect the audience from stray pellets and splatters. The bright yellow splatters that accompany the shootings are sobering; the massacre of Macduff’s family almost disturbing. Then there are the amplified whispers of the assassins, the visit to the Witches played entirely in the dark (with the audience enlightened via the use of night-vision cameras displayed on TV screens either side of the stage). And there’s even a form of audience participation: the screens warned “Please prepare to play Chinese Whispers,” and play Chinese Whispers we did, rumours rippling down the rows of the audience.
Performances were all fine, and the production was superb – this really was an enjoyable show, though perhaps not one for the traditionalists. But more joy was to come for me; after the show, there was a chat between Anthony Steel and director Sam Haren (as well as King John‘s Anne Thompson and William Henderson). Haren confirmed that Vs Macbeth was centred on the mythology of the curse surrounding the play, but also mentioned that some of the accidents (most noticeably the case where one of the actors became entangled in the safety net) were indeed legitimate accidents! The two big takeaways for me, though, were the use of colours for blood (yellow for the paintball assassinations, red for the dagger scene), and the fact that the “accidents” were inserted when an interruption was required… most notably, where content was cut due to production concerns (or a lack of actors).
In short: this was great, and made retrospectively greater by the Q&A session.