On a clear sunny afternoon, patrons gather excitedly inside this beautiful echo of Shakespeare’s 1614 Globe Theatre, recreated four centuries later with scaffolding sheathed in colourbond. It is a portable edifice, continually broken down and reconstructed to bring the experience of Jacobean theatregoing to modern audiences in cities across New Zealand and Australia. The sheer boldness and whimsical romance alone of a company bringing this endeavour to fruition makes it well worth a visit to this theatre, yet the shows themselves are genuinely excellent in their own right, and stand as distinct products of this special performance environment.
Having previously reviewed two of the four concurrent productions presented in this season by the Pop-up Globe, Macbeth was bound to be an illuminating study in contrasts and a test of the versatility of the space. While the previous two shows had been uproarious and frantic comedies, here we have a deadly serious epic tragedy. And while my prior visits had been to evening shows, this was a matinee in which the open-air theatre utilised daylight just as the original structure would have in the Bard’s day. While the electric floods approximating daylight at night serve perfectly well (and I was surprised to see some extra stage lighting was still used in the afternoon), seeing the show at this time of day is an added bonus. The blue sky above and predominantly natural light gives the experience an extra kick of authenticity.
As to the genre, any reservations about how well a tragedy would play in this theatre space that had proven so conducive to comedy, with its ease of audience interaction for their many asides and antics, were quickly quelled. While it would still be interesting to see how one of the more dour history plays such as Richard II or less action-oriented tragedies like King Lear would fare, watching Macbeth in the Pop-up Globe proved something of a revelation. Thunder and lightning, blood and piss, laughs and screams, and the flash and clash of steel, this was an altogether new feast for the senses in its boldly theatrical use of this wonderful performance space.
While the Pop-up Globe’s ethos is to recreate the conditions that a Jacobean theatregoing audience would have encountered, their productions are not intended to slavishly resurrect the styles of performance that Shakespeare’s actual troupe would necessarily have used. Rather, they approach the plays with whatever degree of interpretive modernism that each director sees fit, as they would for any other present-day theatre company. The notable exception being that their shows are geared towards the unique historical properties of the Globe space itself, playing to its three-level encircling galleries of seated patrons and surrounding throng of “groundlings” who stand in the open-air yard around the thrust stage.
This extends as well to using only practical effects that would have been historically available. Macbeth makes far more extensive use of these, with stage-fighting, theatrical smoke, trap doors, simple prosthetics, extensive use of props, live music (including bagpipes!), and lightning and thunder sounds created live via simple yet highly effective foley-style devices backstage.
Oh, and fake blood. So, so very much fake blood.
While probably just about every seat in this facsimile Globe will give you a good view that engages you with the action, I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone who has the requisitely strong legs for it buy a groundling ticket. Not only the cheapest option, they are easily the best and most unique way to experience these shows, and especially THIS show. That is, assuming you aren’t squeamish about the very real possibility that you might get squirted with some theatrical blood. For some of the patrons attending, this is clearly half the fun. I myself got splattered right across the face with the stuff as poor Banquo was having his throat slit way downstage, only a few feet away from me, and was just one of several who copped some simulated arterial spray in this and several other scenes.
It isn’t all over the top carnage though, and believe it or not wasn’t even the goriest iteration of Macbeth I’ve ever seen. But it is certainly the most robust and gleefully interactive with the audience, with characters frequently invading the yard and pushing past groundlings for some of their entrances and exits, be they grand coronation processions or the march of a column of armoured soldiers brandishing pikes and shields. This sense of interaction extends beyond the exciting battle scenes however, and is particularly vital with the many famous speeches that are the lynchpin of the dramatic scenes.
Where the comedies would throw one-liners to the audience or single out the occasional individual for a gag reference, the contact here is actually much more sustained, via the use of direct address in these monologues, primarily by Macbeth himself. Actor Stephen Lovatt builds a relationship with the audience as almost a kind of confidant or confessor, explaining the inner workings of his struggles with ambition, guilt, fear and ultimately madness. Most Shakespeare companies use this tradition of direct address when their actors perform soliloquies, but you will rarely see it used so effectively as in this space. I can attest from experience that even London’s noticeably larger (and now thought to be less historically accurate) recreation of the Globe cannot quite match the superb sense of intimacy this travelling structure affords.
This incredibly engaging production ranges from pageantry to pathos, juxtaposing hauntings and battles with tense and tender moments of interpersonal drama, all weaving together to form one splendid theatrical tapestry. Although they don’t go so far as to bung on kilts and Scottish accents, and while the use of machetes as swords seems rather anachronistic against their otherwise consistently medievalist costumes, apart from Duncan’s modern wheelchair this is probably closer to what you imagine in your head as a “traditional” production of Macbeth… just with the intensity turned way up.
Jason Will, Blake Kubena and Matu Ngaropo turn in fine performances as the heroic Banquo, Malcolm and Macduff, but this is really a play for the villains after all. Despite few actual lines, Hugh Sexton cuts a sinister figure in an expanded use of the minor Seyton role, and Mia Landgren, Romy Hooper and Julia Guthrey are excellent as perhaps the most striking incarnation of the Three Witches I can readily recall. Director Tom Mallaburn has created some extremely effective and elaborate choreography and vocals for them, rendering the supernatural scenes highly memorable indeed.
Although her delivery of the character’s famous monologues was not particularly noteworthy, Amanda Billing brings some exciting other dimensions to her rendition of Lady Macbeth. She injects a highly appealing emotional veracity and sensitivity to a role that is often simplified to that of an ambitious harridan who goes insane. Billing’s Lady Macbeth actually seems to love her husband, and they have at times a surprisingly naturalistic undercurrent of mutual care and an edge of sexy passion that is quietly effective – and unexpectedly so – amidst this often bombastic show.
Billing also plays her character’s murderous and then remorseful turns as genuine emotional transitions, which is aided in no small part by one of the play’s few significant deviations from the classic text, inserting her into the scene where Macduff’s wife and son are murdered on Macbeth’s orders, in a failed attempt to save them. This will probably irk purists, but it works well with the dramaturgy’s approach in making Lady Macbeth’s mental collapse play as a broader attack of conscience in light of her husband’s increasingly tyrannical atrocities, rather than the typical sudden madness which seems essentially to take hold of her offstage.
Special mention also goes to Greg Johnson in his multiple roles as Duncan, Lady Macbeth’s doctor, and most especially as the Porter, the play’s one major comic relief character. I won’t spoil for you exactly what he does, but it’s pretty outrageous and devastatingly funny. Clearly a highly experienced thespian, Johnson performs all of his small parts with tremendous aplomb and a total distinction of each from the other, to marvellous effect.
Finally, and again with notable distinction to the much more ensemble-driven comedies in the Pop-up season, Macbeth features an indisputable starring role in its title character, the tragic fallen hero come villainous protagonist. Stephen Lovatt is absolute theatrical dynamite in this part, his scenes with Billing playing with quiet emotional vulnerability and ranging through to evincing a genuinely bloodcurdling fury in the battle scenes, his performance runs the gamut.
With his aforementioned command of the dramatic soliloquy in this amazing theatre space that requires quite atypical modes of performance by modern conventions, Lovatt never fails to captivate, and repeatedly has the audience eating out of the palm of his bloodied hand. Moreover, for all its volume and intensity, this is quite a layered interpretation of Macbeth as well, never shying away from the black-hearted villainy so much as seeking to complicate it with as much emotional texture as possible. Macbeth’s apoplexies of moral indecision ring true here, as Lovatt plays the character in such a way as to elicit both our sympathy and our eventual hatred.
I cannot applaud this production highly enough, and encourage anyone even remotely so inclined to experience it down in front as a groundling, preferably during a matinee. And if at all possible, try to also attend a performance of the excellent production of The Comedy of Errors, which this same group of actors perform in repertory on alternate sessions. There is such an additional treat to be had in witnessing this fine company of players perform such wildly different roles in two diametrically opposite plays, especially when viewed on consecutive days as I had the privilege of doing.
Pop-up Globe presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Tom Mallaburn
Venue: Pop-up Globe | Entertainment Quarter Moore Park NSW
Dates: from 30 August 2018 (see website for details)
Tickets: from $29.51
Top left and cover – the cast of Macbeth
Bottom left – the reviewer (Jack Teiwes)