Review: Macbeth (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Rebecca Murphy and Rob Pensalfini as Lady and Lord Macbeth. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble performed Macbeth for the first time in the company’s 21-year history, presented in the intimate performance space at the Fringe Brisbane Hub in South Brisbane. Directed by Angela Witcher, an ensemble of twelve actors tackled Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and the result was thrilling and otherworldly.

Macbeth deals with themes of power, prophecy, and deadly ambition. Returning home from a victorious battle, the Scottish nobleman Macbeth encounters three witches who prophesise that he will be king, among other things. When the first part of the prophecy – that he will become the Thane of Cawdor – is fulfilled, Macbeth’s scepticism is slowly overrun by his ambition. Encouraged and urged onwards by his wife, Macbeth kills King Duncan that same night and, with Duncan’s son and heir fleeing to England, becomes king himself. However, the Macbeths are haunted by what they have done, and the tides of personal despair and civil war sweep them both into madness and death as Duncan’s son Malcolm rallies support and returns to claim the throne.

Tenielle Plunkett and Joanne Booth as Fleance and Banquo. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

The setting for QSE’s Macbeth included relevant installations – the hallway between the foyer and the performance space was hung with information and images about the real Macbeth, and related historical context. As the audience entered to take their seats, they passed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth standing at the graveside of their son, adding additional context to the emotional state of the characters before the performance began. Another notable difference in this production was Ross’ alignment with the witches and Hecate, playing a more active part in the bloodshed and betrayal that unfolded.

Rob Pensalfini as Macbeth. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

QSE Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini brought his formidable stage presence to the titular role, delivering an intense and expressive performance of Macbeth’s torment, plagued by guilt at the growing body count of friends and allies killed in an effort to satisfy his ambition and shore up his power. Rebecca Murphy, QSE General Manager and long-time Core Ensemble member, was a regal and ruthless Lady Macbeth opposite Pensalfini, convincing her husband to murder the king and taking her place as queen, as well as the softer side of grieving motherhood in later scenes as her character descended into madness and confession. Pensalfini and Murphy had an excellent, sharp onstage rapport, and their command of Shakespeare’s language and rhythm was especially strong.

Rob Pensalfini and Rebecca Murphy as the royal Macbeths. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

Joanne Booth played an amicable Banquo and a stately Lady Macduff. Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn showcased her versatility as Malcolm, from grief at the death of his father to a rousing speech as they marched on Macbeth and, eventually, his ascent to the throne. Angus Thorburn played the role of Macduff with passionate energy, and the scene in which Macduff grieves his murdered family was particularly memorable. Rebekah Schmidt was a stalking, smoky-eyed Ross, and Mikala Crawley played a benevolent King Duncan, as well as a range of other roles.

Rebekah Schmidt as Ross. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

Crystal Arons, Ellen Hardisty, and Leah Mustard brought a feral edge to the three witches, or “weird sisters” with chilling intonations and animalistic movement style. Tenielle Plunkett threw herself into a number of roles with high energy and exaggerated physicality, and the ensemble was rounded out by Crystal Arons, Meg Bennett, and Leah Mustard, who all played a series of minor roles with commitment and conviction.

Crystal Arons, Ellen Hardisty, and Leah Mustard as the three witches. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

Production design by Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn was full of texture and colour; costuming clearly demarcated families and alliances, stylised makeup evoked warpaint and added to the otherworldliness of the characters, and changes in costuming and hairstyles also differentiated characters where actors were playing several roles.

The staging used multiple entry and exit points, and a number of boxes were used as multifunctional stage furniture, re-arranged between scenes. Vines wound up across the walls, contrasted against the white tiles, and battery-operated candles provided ambient, atmospheric lighting during scene transitions. Lighting design and technical operations by Tim James added to the cohesive aesthetic palette of the work, and a single spotlight was especially effective for scenes of character contemplation and introspection.

Angus Thorburn and Rob Pensalfini as Macduff and Macbeth. Image by Benjamin Prindable Photography.

Macbeth’s demise was visceral, and the deaths in the Macduff household and the murder of Banquo were similarly intense. The fight choreography and swordplay by Jason McKell and Rob Pensalfini, executed by Pensalfini and Angus Thorburn, was some of the best I’ve seen from QSE or elsewhere. The closer the audience is to the stage, the more difficult it is to create fight choreography that feels smooth and authentic, but this was exciting and superbly performed in close proximity.

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble immersed the audience in their thrilling and atmospheric production of Macbeth, with memorable design choices and passionate performances in an intimate theatre space.

Macbeth played at the Fringe Brisbane Hub, South Brisbane, from 3 – 27 November 2022

For ticketing and further information, visit the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble website

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