The Australian Shakespeare Company’s productions at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens are always an enjoyable experience, having a very high baseline with picturesque surroundings, evening melting into night, quality texts and highly skilled performers and creatives. One of this season’s offerings is Macbeth, a dark and violent tragedy filled with prophesy, bloodshed, and ruthless ambition, perfectly suited in mood to the cold, windy nights that Melbourne is currently experiencing in abundance.

It is easy to go into a play like Macbeth with high expectations. The high-drama plot and cultural familiarity (including the famous theatre tradition of always calling it “the Scottish play”) almost demand that any production of this show be an intensely engaging experience. This particular production, however, left me with mixed feelings. There were high points, of course, such as Alison Whyte’s formidable portrayal of Lady Macbeth, Tony Rive’s Banquo (especially the appearance of his ghost), and the overall subtle, tasteful depictions of what is textually horrific violence. There were also disappointments, however, such as an overall insufficiency in communicating the text. It is always a challenge to make Shakespeare intelligible to English speakers of this age, but this production made the challenge appear insurmountable.

There was enough physical and visual action to allow the audience to follow the storyline, but it was not connected enough to the textual richness to allow for genuine investment in most individual characters. Hugh Sexton’s Macbeth shone only in flashes, Anna Burgess’ Malcolm was intriguing and full of potential but somehow didn’t fully bring the character to life. Syd Brisbane’s Macduff stood out, however, and it was a line from him that for me carried a realness unlike anything else in this play. Upon receiving the news about his family’s murder, a distraught Macduff is told by Malcolm to “dispute it like a man”, to which he responds “I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man”. There was an unexplained potency in this moment, where Malcolm’s idea of performative masculinity (presented by Anna Burgess, almost ironically) was challenged by Macduff’s rebuttal, a masculinity which embraces emotional authenticity. This moment was easily the high point of the play for me, and has stayed with me for days after.

Macbeth under the stars is a beautiful experience from an atmospheric and general entertainment perspective, it is hard to go wrong with choosing it for a theatrically engaging night out. For those looking for a deeper experience of the text, however, it might be best to go in with gentler expectations.

Don’t forget to dress warm, and bring a blanket.

Rating: ★★★½

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