MANBETH: Macbeth amplified By William Shakespeare. Band of Creatures & Optic Nerve fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, City. Until August 1
Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
– Macbeth (I,vii)
Gender-blind casting of Shakespeare is back in fashion. As women were forbidden from English stages until the Restoration, the Bard used boys for female roles. The tide came full circle in last year’s The War of the Roses – a sprawling production of the history plays from director Benedict Andrews, starring Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III, respectively.
Contemporary all-male companies aren’t unheard of. The most notable – Edward Hall’s Propeller group from the UK – was invited to perform Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew at the 2007 Perth International Arts Festival.
In the same vein, Manbeth presents a physically charged, all-male version of the Scottish play, imagined within the confines of a prison. Macbeth meets Ghosts of the Civil Dead, if you like.
Despite its claim to physicality, the first thing that strikes you about the show is its verbal wizardry. Most of these young actors are extremely accomplished at conjuring cadence through Shakespeare’s verse.
It’s immensely heartening. There are exceptions, but the recent history of Shakespearian performance in Australia tends toward the inglorious. If the appalling tone-deafness of Brendan Cowell as Hamlet represented a unique nadir, there are dozens of performances that galumph through Shakespeare’s poetry in gum-boots, insulting the ears and intellects of audiences in equal measure.
None of that here, and though you can take issue with the director’s conception, the language does most of the work. Get that right, and you could set Macbeth inside the entrails of a gigantic goose – it would still be worth seeing.
The prison-world hovers suggestively, giving the production a filthy air. The witches become drug-dealers, Banquo’s murder occurs naked in a communal shower, the banquet scene is fight night, and Birnam Wood advances on Dunsinane as torchlight through the slats in wooden stools.
Sexual violence permeates the relationship between Macbeth (Alexander England and Michael Steele) and Lady Macbeth (Ben Pfeiffer and Gabriel Partington). Both roles are played by two actors, but the doubling – an interesting idea – doesn’t quite work.
It’s better realised through Macbeth, bringing to the surface Germaine Greer’s insight that the play is “the tragedy of a man who tries to kill his own soul, but can’t succeed”. With his wife, the division of text between the actors feels arbitrary and unconvincing.
There are many fine performances: from England and Steele and Pfeiffer in the leading roles, Joshua Ryan as a ferret-like Malcolm, and Anthony Taufa – fresh from playing Othello, no less – as Duncan and the Porter.
Casting agents won’t want to miss this one. It’s a testosterone-fuelled flesh-fest, where our brightest young actors tackle a world of escalating violence.