In their advance publicity, World-in-Theatre announced to the world how they'd be re-envisioning Macbeth as if it were a "newly written play". In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. Macbeth simply isn't a fresh-off-the-laserjet manuscript cooked up by some unWikipediable playwright; it's a classic. And the more well-known and iconic a classic is, the easier it is to fuck it up.
For instance, everyone knows the opening words to the play: "When shall we three meet again, yadda yadda," as spoken by the warty old witches on the heath. It's difficult for a director to make that old tune exciting again - she's going to have to confound expectations somehow; make the witches unexpectedly sober, sinister or sexy enough to convince us that something truly wicked this way comes.
Director Shelly Quick, however, works as if she's oblivious to the concept of cliché. Her witches are cackling, prancing, over-the-top creatures, straight out of Hansel and Gretel or The Wizard of Oz. When they intone the immortal lines, they can't be taken seriously by an adult - they're laughable, almost painful to watch.
It's a problem that repeats itself over and over again: the most iconic scenes of this play are treated ham-fistedly, turned into melodrama or farce. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, the witches' "Double, double, toil and trouble" song, Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" aside - all fall flat, weighted down by excruciating melodrama or deadly cliché.
Sure, it's arguable that the entire production seeks to lift itself out of the tried-and-tested by going for an "ethnic Asian" look - actors are garbed in clothing that's a mix of Malay kampung and Scottish burgh: tartan sarongs over trousers with swords at their sides. But even this is kind of old hat: pretty much every locally produced Shakespearean play goes to some effort to localise/modernise its setup. Plus, there's no apparent allegory at work here - no conceivable significance about why Singapore needs to see a bangsawan-style Macbeth right now. Thickly veiled allusion to the rule of Abdullah Badawi? I only wish.
Yet another big problem the production faces is the dearth of good actors, or - let's share the blame here - a dearth of good actor management. The Wounded Sergeant's drawn-out description of Macbeth's heroics is painful to endure - why didn't the director trim the lines to better suit the student actor? And in his early scenes, Macbeth himself doesn't project any sense of strong, good-natured vitality that would render him a human hero - the kind whose fall from goodness to goriness would really signify tragedy.
Perhaps worst of all is the dialogue in England between Macduff, Malcolm and Lennox. All three drone on in perfect English monotones, never getting to the visceral emotive meat of the scene. Macduff's face remains as blank as ever, even as he struggled with the news that his country's next best successor might be a morally corrupt nymphomaniac or that his wife and children had been turned into Bolognese sauce.
By now, you're probably all wondering why I'm giving this show a three-star rating. Truth is, for all of Quick's bad decisions, I actually suspect she might be a great director in the making - one of those few with a visionary spark who can create truly distinctive, fascinating stagework.
I first began to notice this in scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Exchanges between the murderous couple are cunningly timed, with meaningful silences within apparently monolithic dialogues, drawing out hitherto unnoticed tensions in the text. These interchanges were frequently the best scenes of the play - I thrilled at the dangerous games of threat and seduction as the Lady convinced her husband to commit the murder, their shared terror in the wake of the act and the turning of the tables, in the banquet scene, when Macbeth actually became physically abusive to his wife. (Big kudos, of course, goes to Adelynn Tan, for her portrayal of the doomed queen, though her "unsex me here" scene is pretty much ruined by the superfluous entrance of the witches.)
Fascinating, also, is the interplay between light and darkness: occasionally an actor delivered his or her lines out of the spotlight, adding to that sense of hidden menace and interior turmoil. Add to that the tool of absence: Banquo's ghost is portrayed as a mere pool of greenish light on a cushion at the kenduri feast, forcing us to imagine the horror ourselves, witnessing not sloppy make-up, but the extent of the royal madness. Add to that an overall aesthetic of live music performance: between their scenes, actors sit by the side of the playing area, doubling up as instrumentalists on violin and drum, even adding wordless vocals during funeral processions.
Quick attributes her newfound vision to a recent bout of training in the Viewpoints/Suzuki method. And truth be told, it doesn't always work - the use of all offstage actors as a chorus of assassins was pretty iffy, the violin solo as prologue grew annoyingly tiresome, and Macbeth's "stars hide your fires" soliloquy ended up being completely upstaged by the meticulous tableau vivant of the courtiers behind him. Still, it's important to have that impulse that makes a director dare to take risks, to imprint her subjective voice on a production, to make it different.
I'd better also take a note to praise a few more actors whose strong performances raised the tenor of the production. Mohan Sachdev makes a welcome return to acting after four years of absence, emanating benevolent authority and worried buffoonery in his respective parts as Duncan and Lady Macbeth's surgeon. Patricia Toh, though fated to play one of the cringeworthy witches, redeems herself with as a spunky drunken Porter of ambiguous gender. And after a few rather colourless scenes, Sonny Lim eventually grows into the role of Macbeth, ultimately delivering a fairly decent rendition of the mad king. Without these talents, Quick could hardly have developed a deeply flawed production into one that showed such promise.
I watched Macbeth in the last performance of its run, which is frequently the best. I've known others who saw it on other occasions and hated it - called it the third-worst Macbeth they'd ever seen. That's definitely not a compliment, considering the formidable number of interpretations the play's been given on this island - by The Necessary Stage, the Stage Club, Singapore Repertory Theatre and Hi! Theatre, by my own recollection.
And that's the crux of the problem: every performance of a classic will be judged by the performances that have gone before. A director must consider the glories and errors of the past, figure out what she can do with this specific occasion of performance, with this specific cast and crew, to make hers a Macbeth to remember. Otherwise, her work is void and irrelevant, meaningless compared with more timely plays she might choose to stage. She will be cursed to repeat the mistakes of history, forever.
Yi-Sheng's First Impression
Macbeth suffers from a mediocre cast, bouts of over-the-top melodrama and a general, gentle cluelessness over why a bangsawan-style Shakespearean tragedy should be relevant today. Still, the production eventually blossoms, with both Lady Macbeth and her husband giving vivid performances as their world spirals downward into mania. You've gotta respect director Shelly Quick for her ambitious aesthetic vision; she's made some strong decisions on the use of lighting, music, silence, space and absence to play with the text, illuminating points of dramatic potential I'd never noticed before. But it's not a perfect play: she definitely needs more time and resources to grow.
Kenneth's First Impression
The strengths of this production lay in the casting of an almost girlish, younger Lady Macbeth (Adelynn Tan) against an older everyman (rather than a superman) Macbeth (Sonny Lim) which brought a new dynamic to this canonical text, and the visual power of the three Wyrd Sisters as performed by Patricia Toh, Shahrin Johry and Sufri Juwahir, using their physical theatre and dance backgrounds to hypnotic effect. Elsewhere though, the play simply plodded along. Director Shelly Quick wanted to be faithful to the text but she goes too far in emphasizing the dreariness inherent in the script. Many of the scenes are played in half-darkness and presented in a muted fashion with little melodrama (when Andrew Mowatt's Macduff sees Duncan's body, he says the line "O horror, horror, horror!" as a drone, sapped of emotion) - these are valid, even thought-provoking, choices but all together, they accentuate the monotonous and oppressive joylessness of the play while providing little respite for the audience over two and a half hours. Since Quick was prepared to edit some of the text, I was also surprised that she left in some of the drier passages that caused the play to feel even more dragged out. I had difficulty with some of the minor characters because of the actors' stilted or even unclear delivery of lines but I was always heartened when Tan, Lim, and Mowatt were onstage: they are charismatic actors who made their characters convincing even though they were being played against type. I wouldn't recommend this play to those who are looking for an entertaining night out but this somber presentation is worth checking out for those who have read the play and are interested in seeing how it may be interpreted and staged.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /