By BRUCE DENNILL
Macbeth / Directed by Fred Abrahamse / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 8
For a play to not just be yet another version of a particularly famous piece – and there are few more famous than this one – there must be considerable creativity employed in the interpretation of a new production. In Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer’s imagining, an enormous amount of work and imagination has gone into making a striking, detailed staging look incredible simple.
In keeping with the play’s themes and mood, everything is dark. An enormous table functions as a table around which the characters meet, but also as a stage within a stage, adding height and texture to the space. Marcel Meyer’s costumes are start and modern – black kilts, dress shirts and knee-high boots, with sashes occasionally providing a flash of colour and a clue to a character’s allegiance.
Actors enter and exit through gaps in a black backdrop rather than the wings, and combined with a black cloth affixed under the stage-spanning table and a trapdoor in the table, this allows the six actors who play almost all of the characters (a couple of minor roles go to puppets, but those are operated by members of the same small cast) to appear and disappear with minimum fuss and maximum impact. A moody, often sinister soundscape by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and austere but precise lighting by Abrahamse round out the foundational practical aspects of the production.
The cast respond to their carefully constructed context magnificently. They are clearly exhaustively rehearsed, with not a word in all of the original language being fudged in around two and a half hours of running time. Every mark is hit and every costume change is fluid, removing distractions while helping the audience to fully engage with Shakespeare’s text. Indeed, though this production makes no concessions to modern language or speech patterns, it’s clarity of presentation and the quality of the performances make the story easier to follow and understand than is often the case when Shakespeare is performed for contemporary crowds.
Everyone on stage is multi-tasking throughout, with Meyer taking on the title role and a few incidentals; Stephen Jubber playing both Duncan and Macduff; Tailyn Ransamy being Banquo and Lady Macduff; Jeremy Richard turning up as a witch, the porter, Donalbain and a murderer; Matthew Baldwin being a witch, Malcolm, Ross and another murderer; and Tristan de Beer as a witch, Fleance and Lady Macbeth.
The latter is perhaps the standout performer in a cast who all deliver well. It takes a couple of moments in his first scene to realise that he is portraying a woman, a scenario that was the norm in Shakespeare’s time, because other than a sparkling necklace, De Beer is attired in the same regalia as his counterparts. But such is the intensity and certainty of his portrayal of Macbeth’s scheming wife that it’s almost immediately impossible to see only her when he is onstage.
Meyer’s physical bulk helps give his Macbeth authority, though he adds plenty of nuance to communicate the troubled nobleman’s internal turmoil and struggles with guilt.
Beautifully made and assertively executed, this is, hopefully, a reading of Macbeth that will be revisited many times in years to come.