Our black and deep desires: Macbeth re-visted

Earlier this month, for The Australian Financial Review, I interviewed Peter Evans, the director of a new production of Macbeth for the Bell Shakespeare Company.

The designer, as I wrote here earlier this week, is the Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship winner for 2012, Anna Cordingley.

Thinking about Macbeth and reading Harold Bloom’s analysis of the play, made me wonder why there are so few dance works inspired by the play.

Perhaps the poetry of Macbeth is sublime in itself and needs no further interpretation, although that does not of course apply to Romeo & Juliet or even Hamlet which is the subject of at least eight ballets including one choreographed by John Neumeier.

Horst Koegler, in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, lists three Macbeth ballets in the 19th century and two in the 20th century, including the last, choreographed by Vladimir Vasiliev for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1980.

The photo (below left) of Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov was taken at a rehearsal for the Ulanova Gala in London last year.

The Bolshoi is planning a new production of Macbeth which may be part of its 2013 season.

Below is the article that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 24 March, 2012.

Of all the hero-villains in Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth may be the one who resembles us most.

It’s all too simple to conjure up scenarios of annihilating the enemy and taking their place on the metaphorical throne, whether that be the president’s suite, the judge’s bench, the name on the marquee, or the corner office.

Especially if a mischievous observer whispers in our ear, and gives us a nudge in that direction.

Peter Evans, whose production of Macbeth for Bell Shakespeare Company opens next Friday [March 30], understands the universality of “our black and deep desires” to quote the Scottish tyrant.

“We daily have thoughts that range from mischievous through to sociopathic”, Evans says, but, because we’re not crazy, we don’t act on the worst of them.

Evans has produced the Scottish play twice before and knows Macbeth with the forensic mind of a scholar, such as Harold Bloom, who wrote: “Shakespeare surmised the guilty imaginings we share with Macbeth who is Mr Hyde to our Dr Jekyll…Virtuous as we may (or may not) be, we fear that Macbeth, our Mr Hyde, has the power to realise our own potential for active evil”.

In Evans’s office at Bell Shakespeare in the Rocks, in Sydney, the walls are covered with sketches of his new production, designed by Anna Cordingley. They range from a 1940s-style suit for Lady Macbeth to a witch’s dress of olive green that appears to grow organically from the soil.

Although he speaks of murder, superstition and supernatural goings on, Evans is as sunny as the early autumn afternoon outside as he dissects the anatomy of the play that he first produced in the mid-1990s.

Evans, 40, was appointed associate artistic director of Bell Shakespeare Company 14 months ago, succeeding Marion Potts who is now artistic director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.

Potts was tipped to succeed John Bell as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, but perhaps she got tired of waiting.

Bell, 71, can of course continue his distinguished acting career for many years, but if he grows weary of his management role, Evans is now next in line.

“John and I have been talking”, he says “and the board has been talking about making a plan, and working on a plan, of what the future’s going to be”, he says. “I’m certainly working with them on how that eventuates. There’s a process that has to be gone through”.

Evans’s connection with Bell Shakespeare goes back to 1996, when, just out of the directing course at NIDA, he directed a schools’ production of Macbeth for the company. A year later, his brother, Richard, became general manager of the company where he remained for five years before moving on to the chief executives role at the Australian Ballet, then the Sydney Opera House and now BridgeClimb.

The brothers have followed in each other’s footsteps ever since they left their home city, Christchurch, New Zealand, to study in Auckland. Richard moved to Australia in 1993 and Peter followed two years later.

In 2005, Peter was appointed associate director at Bell before moving south two years later to become associate director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

“I spent most of the 2000s working on new Australian work I’ve also done a heck of a lot of naturalism”, he says. “It reached a point for me where I didn’t want to do that anymore”.

When Bell asked him to re-join the company in late 2010, “I thought this is right, this is where I’m meant to be going. I want to spend more time with this language and want to work in a more pared down way, in a more empty stage way, and just explore the actor and the text”.

His new Macbeth takes place on a crumbling floor of gravel and dying grass, and under a black roof that he describes as “a huge modernist structure. I think it’s all you need in a play like this, just the words reverberating.

“Macbeth is a great poet – extraordinary in his ability to find images that describe this mind which is defiled, and we need to be in a space where we can hear that and follow that journey as he commits one act that opens up the next one, which opens up the next one. It’s that thing of many mini Pandora’s boxes. Once you’ve crossed a certain line, you have to keep going forward”.

In Evans’s mind, the tragedy of Macbeth does not necessarily take place in Scotland.

“It’s set in emptiness”, he says, reflecting Bloom’s concept that the characters play out the drama in the cosmos, and not just a kingdom, and that both represent “an apocalyptic stage”.

In this production, the traditional three witches become one. Played by Lizzie Schebesta, the witch is “an incredibly beautiful young woman, with pale blonde hair and a kind of cold beauty – essentially a vessel for someone else, a conduit for whatever was in the ether”.

She is a based on a young woman that Evans used to pass on his way to work in Melbourne.

“When you were at some distance you would swear she was in some argument with somebody, but in fact she was arguing with a bunch of people inside her head”.

His production will focus on the erotic spark between the Macbeths, played by Dan Spielman and Kate Mulvany.

Lady Macbeth, says Evans, “is extremely turned on by the blood on his [Macbeth’s] hands” after he has killed Duncan.

The murder represents blood on the marital bed, a form of consummation.

Lady Macbeth prepares Macbeth for the killing by challenging his manhood “and we’re exploring that scene around manhood.

“She says ‘I know him well and I know he really wants this but he can’t do it alone, I have to help him’. And I think that’s really sexy and we can understand it”.

In the end, as we know, it all comes to “a dusty death, a tale told by an idiot”.

The final soliloquy, “tomorrow and tomorrow”, is magnificent piece of writing”, Evans says,

“When Macbeth hears news of his wife’s death, he realises that nothing is important and everything he does is just tears in the rain”.

How does an actor manage to rekindle the famous words?

“You play it straight and truthfully and simply. It has to be propelled by the realisation of how small we are in the universe. We are tiny and all here for a moment”.

Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre, 30 March – 12 May
Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, 17 May – 2 June
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse, 7-23 June

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Kate Mulvany in rehearsal for Macbeth

Anna Cordingley’s design for a witch in Macbeth

Peter Evans

Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov in Vladimir Vasiliev’s Macbeth
photo © 2011 Daniel Paul Jones