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Review: Manbeth

The review of Manbeth below is written by Joanna Bowen for Australian Stage Online.  See the original review here.

Manbeth is a riot of masculinity; within minutes, you can smell the testosterone.

This retelling of Macbeth is set in a sparse, prison-like atmosphere, wooden benches the only set pieces. The ensemble moves throughout the space with comfort and confidence, morphing it unrestrictedly alongside their switching characters. The piece is powered by a physicality which amplifies the violence and intensity of the original. The constantly moving bodies climb the chunky struts which support the ceiling, roll, fight, choke each other, always grabbing and touching, fusing sexuality to violence with startling effectiveness.

Photo by Margaret Swan

The performance is remarkably well-crafted. You can’t lose focus for a moment, or the pace of the piece will leave you panting behind. The most intriguing decision was to use two actors for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, two men for each, working in unison, sharing the speeches; sometimes one is absent while the other takes the fore, but there is a constant undercurrent of duality and connection between them. The naturalness of it is striking; there feels no need to question it, as the division creates two distinct characters, the one creeping ever closer to insanity, unrestrainedly violent, and the other the more rational, calculating side. This melded into a perfect portrayal of the internal conflict for which Macbeth is so renowned.

The dominating masculinity of the production was tempered only by Gabriel Partington and Ben Pffeiffer, who played Lady Macbeth. Both exuded a strong sexuality, and were at odds with the flashy show of muscles which characterised the rest of the cast. They did not play at femininity, but created it from the male body, finding lust and passion and fear, a depiction of a creature neither woman nor man, but Emotion. This emotional strength, and especially the magnificent malevolence of Partington, totally reshaped their character. Suddenly she was not the woman known so well from the endless productions of Macbeth over the years – now she was darker, her sexuality more dangerous, and her strength palpable.

Alexander England and Michael Steele formed Macbeth, a frenetic movement of straining muscles and aggression. The actors’ connection fed their performance so they maintained constant awareness of each other, without any hint of disconnection. The intensity of England’s portrayal of Macbeth’s less restrained, more bestial side captured our focus from the moment he tensely appeared. Steele’s more controlled strength complemented the harsher side, as he found power and dignity in the character.

The movement of the ensemble generates a heady atmosphere, filled with sweat and pain, revealing the animal in man. Manbeth wrenches the guts out of the original, dispatching any gentility it may have contained and thrusting it into a familiar world of violent desires and hunger for power. All this is done with remarkable skill on the part of the director and ensemble, forging a coherence which reinvigorated the meaning of the tragedy, while adding their own salty flavour.

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