Theatre review: Macbeth, Sydney Opera House

Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Macbeth gives the 400-year-old play a 1920s twist.

In this age of contention about who can tell what stories, that most sacrosanct of dead white males, Shakespeare, continues to prosper – lucky for the Bell Shakespeare company the business model of which relies on the Bard. But is it still possible to make his work relevant to audiences today?

Peter Evans believes so, stating in his director’s statement that, ‘Shakespeare shows us the politics of grappling with a mad tyrant. Over the last few years and the seemingly endless parade of “strongmen” we have seen here and around the world, I have thought about this play.’

Macbeth, of course, represents a certain kind of strongman – whose alpha masculinity is waylaid first by the prophesies of witches, then the machinations of his scheming wife Lady Macbeth. Alongside his own ‘vaulting ambition’, it all inevitably leads to tragic consequences. 

This exploration of masculinity and mental health is the most successful aspect of a production that opens with the entire cast on a short stage, pushed to the front by a heavy green curtain, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. The use of a small ensemble with some actors playing multiple roles works for the most part, with some standouts in the cast. Hazem Shammas reveals the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and shades of Macbeth’s madness in his outstanding portrayal. Jessica Tovey’s Lady Macbeth is equally beguiling in her complexity.

The interrogation of masculinity and gender expectations is further explored with Macduff’s grief upon hearing about the murder of his wife and children. Another highlight is Lady Macbeth’s desire to lose her femininity in order to become cruel as she entreats the spirits to ‘unsex me here’. Who knew Shakespeare was so woke when it came to men expressing their feelings and to women denying their feminine traits to gain power in a masculine world? There are also moments of hilarity, particularly from James Lugton as the drunk porter. He is a welcome respite from the bloodshed and tragedy. 

Setting the play in the 1920s adds a sense of decadence and perhaps a parallel between the Macbeths and Tom and Daisy Buchanan In F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The clever use of wardrobe delineates characters and locations. The lighting is well chosen and effective; the white, green and red colour palette reflecting the tension between the religious, the physical and the supernatural, while the minimal yet sophisticated sound design is a poignant accompaniment to the rest of the production.  

The only moment not entirely convincing is the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff, which may benefit from more rehearsal to give the production the climax it deserves. 

Read: Theatre review: Dogs of Europe, Adelaide Festival

Ultimately the message is still relevant today: absolute power corrupts absolutely. This sparse and poetic production of Macbeth is worth seeing for a pure understanding of the play and the beauty of the words. For fans and novices alike. 

By William Shakespeare
Presented by Bell Shakespeare Company

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Director: Peter Evans 

Designer: Anna Tregloan
Lighting designer: Damien Cooper
Composer and sound designer: Max Lyandvert
Cast: Hazem Shammas, Jessica Tovey, Rebecca Attanasio, Julia Billlington, Isabel Burton, Jeremi Campese, Eleni Cassimatis, James Lugton, Kyle Morrison, Jacob Warner, Lauren Richardson, Laurence Young. 

Macbeth will be performed until 2 April 2023.

Sunny Grace is a writer/director who tells stories about women, strange families and Mother Earth. She has an MFA in Performance Writing from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Australia. She has won awards for her short films, Trigger Happy and Charging. Her play The Angelica Complex is published by Australian Plays and premiered in Sydney in 2016. In 2022 she was awarded the Erin Thomas Prize for Playwriting where she is developing her play, Death of a Superwoman. In 2022 she was awarded the Screen NSW Attachment in the writer's room of Roadshow Rough Diamond TV show Year Of for Stan. She has produced online content, music videos and short films including the multi-awarding winning dik. Her current obsession is stories about women over fifty, the generation of women she belongs to and wants to see on screen. She has written articles and reviews for the Sydney Sentinel. She is married with two adult sons and based in the Northern Rivers of NSW but travels to wherever the story takes her.