Macbeth has been done live and it’s been done digitally, but for the COVID-19 world, Barestage Theatre combines the two forms for a techno-punk rendition of the fall of the Scottish king. Performed live and streamed straight to your home, Macbeth: the Installation traverses boundaries of intimacy and performance.
The production opens with Lady Macbeth (Romney Stanton) in the throes of a nightmare, thrashing on her bed while spectral creatures watch on. This opening frames the rest of the action like Lady Macbeth’s own personal fever dream and centres her agency more clearly than her hesitant husband. Filmed live, the camera, operated by Kieran Camejo with cinematography from Sinclair Suhood, followed the actors through various settings throughout Darlo Drama, moving between sets through backstage hallways strewn with actors. The handheld, behind-the-scenes feeling gives the production the tone of a music video with emphasis placed more on the overall atmosphere than the narrative, hence the “Installation” tagline.
The set and costuming designed by James Smithers also played into the music industry influence with an amped-up techno-punk aesthetic that mixed lab coats and flickering televisions with billowing black clothing and sooty, smudged makeup. The strongest aesthetic choices, though, felt a bit off-kilter from the rest of the production, ie turning King Duncan (Lex Marinos) into a Wizard of Oz character, a floating head on a vintage television screen with heavily distorted vocals. When the camera pivoted from this to the weird sisters (Bella Ridgway, Deborah Jones, Scarlet Hunter) dressed in customary gothic black lace veils, the remixing felt off-balance. Then, again, one of the most effective moments of the production split the Porter into two characters (Hunter and Steven Ljubovic) as gate-keeping party-ers, which was a clever and well-conveyed reimagining that belonged in a completely different production.
Direction from Sean O’Riordan truncated the original script for a more associative take on the narrative, creating more fluidity between scenes. The sound design (Mark Wilson) in particular carried over the darkness expected of a Macbeth production but more often than not it fell flat with a monotonous drone throughout the majority of the first half and a deep rumbling sound like a dragon exhalation that punctuated dramatic moments. Perhaps this is the collision of film and live theatre, subtle reality meeting hyper-emotionality. At the same time, certain choices by O’Riordan, including the decision to have Macbeth (Lewis McLeod) and Lady Macbeth speak direct-to-camera and side-eye the audience like characters in a mock-umentary, undercut the play’s tragedy and certainly drained the confrontational moments of any tension. In this sense, the combining of film and theatre, comedy and tragedy, saw some elements edging out others to the detriment of the production’s focus.
With all of this design to consider, the actors’ performances play second fiddle to the atmosphere the production team have created. McLeod’s Macbeth is unreadable for the majority of the action, keeping his motivating emotions close to the chest while Stanton’s Lady Macbeth is open, wild, and powerful. She seems in close contact with the underworld that made manifest her husband’s rise to power and she plays into a dangerous, unlikeable demeanour. Malcolm (Deng Deng) and Macduff (Shan-Ree Tan) offer more traditional renderings of honourable Shakespearean men almost like a counterbalance to the saucy attendant played by Gemma Burwell.
As a performance piece Macbeth: the Installation fits somewhere post-stage but pre-digital, like Kurt Cobain meets Dr Jekyll, and it makes some bold artistic decisions but the end result resists the original narrative and strains for something bigger. It leaves you wondering, what would this look like if they left the story behind?
Macbeth: the Installation is streaming online from September 25th – 27th
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