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Review: A powerful and bloody new take on Macbeth

Theatre

Cleverly stripped of all historical baggage, the State Theatre Company’s Macbeth allows nothing to distract us from the raw brutality of this Shakespearean tale of unchecked ambition, moral corruption and murder.

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Given modern audiences’ familiarity with the rise and fall of theatre’s most ruthless power couple, the play poses an enormous challenge to any company. How do you reconstruct the world of Macbeth in a way that breathes new life into a work to which every audience member brings a towering set of expectations?

Director Geordie Brookman achieves this brilliantly by giving us an utterly contemporary incarnation of the play.

Everything has been stripped back to a grungy, industrial vision of a “blasted heath” with all colour, shine and romanticism leached away. Designer Victoria Lamb’s intense set and costume design deliver a powerful statement, perfectly illustrating the point that just as Macbeth’s story unfolded in a period of great civil unrest, so too is our current moment in time.

The parallels between the two eras don’t stop there. Transported into this blighted contemporary context, the play’s themes are also resonant today: the dangers of extreme ambition, the ramifications of trauma and the corruption of morality in the service of ultimate power. It’s shocking to see how relevant Shakespeare’s writing remains four centuries later.

Nathan O’Keefe is nuanced and powerful as Macbeth. Photo: Chris Herzfeld / Camlight Productions

There are strong performances from each member of the ensemble cast but it is the power couple who prove truly riveting. Nathan O’Keefe is nuanced and powerful as Macbeth, brilliantly capturing the competing facets of the character; the burgeoning ambition that leads to murder and festering guilt in the wake of his actions.

Anna Steen as Lady Macbeth, one of the most challenging roles in theatre, is simply outstanding. This is no cardboard cut-out of a manipulative psychopath. Steen enthralls whenever she opens her mouth, investing her Lady Macbeth with a humanity and complexity that is often lacking in portrayals of this side of the Macbeth partnership.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting design is particularly innovative, providing multiple stages within the single set, and the soundscape by DJ TR!P lends an almost apocalyptic atmosphere as the murderous headcount accumulates.

Actress Rachel Burke plays multiple roles – an ever-present, spectral figure. Photo: Chris Herzfeld / Camlight Productions

Particular mention must be made of Rachel Burke in her multiple roles as Witch, Banquo’s son Fleance and MacDuff Jnr. She is on stage for the entire performance, an ever-present, spectral and almost gothic figure whose role includes providing all the blood for the play’s myriad murders.  For the most part, she does this using her mouth. The jolt of sudden crimson on the bleak set and the manner of delivery combine to make this one of the most shocking and potent elements of the performance.

This is a clever and powerful adaption.

Geordie Brookman has transformed this complex tragedy into a contemporary statement on how trauma can infect lives and the potential ramifications of unchecked ambition when coupled with unravelling morality. Successfully reinventing a classic is a mark of enormous skill and Brookman has proved himself more than equal to the task.

Macbeth is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 16.

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