Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Jordan Best. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. August 4-20. canberrarep.org.au or 62571950.
Director Jordan Best says Macbeth is like a bullet train. It's the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but the brevity works to its advantage as it speeds through its single storyline without extraneous subplots. The play tells the story of the Scottish thane Macbeth, who hears three witches prophesy that he will become king of Scotland. He plots with his wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the king, Duncan, and seize the throne. But the action they intended to unite them in ultimate power and prestige ends up driving them apart and destroying them.
"It's bloody and wonderful," Best says.
For her, the centre of the play is the relationship between Macbeth (played by Chris Zuber) and Lady Macbeth (Jenna Roberts) and how it changes as events proceed on an increasingly dark path.
"Something that's important to me, Chris and Jenna is that they are not villains at the beginning of the play and not two people who set out to do something dreadful. They're two ambitious people who do something as a means to an end without thinking about the consequences of what they're doing."
She cast Zuber and Roberts, both in their 30s, as the couple so as to have them young enough to feel ambitious and eager to go further in life and old enough that they were starting to feel the passing of time, helping to give them the impetus to commit a heinous act of treachery.
Best says she wanted to bring out the complexity of the characters and their relationship and didn't want to paint them as one-dimensional villains but a loving couple who act together for a variety of motives. Macbeth, having recently been victorious in battle and given new honour by his king, is doing quite well for himself and though tempted, doesn't feel quite so compelled to act at first, but Lady Macbeth, being a woman and essentially powerless, keenly wants the status that being queen will bestow, Best says.
"She's ambitious and a little bit desperate [but] I don't think she forces him to do it, though it's very deeply important to her. He wants it too but she wants it so much and he loves her so much he does it for her."
But though they both hope the murder will be free of consequences, it isn't, ultimately isolating them both from the kingdom and driving both mad, though this manifests itself in different ways, Best says.
"He does it to himself ... He's a person who ends up with no moral compass any more. The murder does not sit easily with him. He's pretty much lost it by the end of Act 2."
While Macbeth suffers from hallucinations and becomes paranoid, tyrannical and murderous, Lady Macbeth becomes more and more withdrawn.
"One of the things that drives her mad is becoming of no consequence ... She ends up even less powerful than before and loses her relationship."
Best says her production has no specific time, place or costume setting – though there are swords – to give it a universal feeling and to focus attention on the actors and the story. She's working with a cast of 26 ranging in age from 16 to 70 on the work of a playwright she's loved since she saw The Tempest when she was nine.
Roberts says she feels very lucky. "The two Shakespeare roles I've done I've played these two glorious female roles of his – I feel really stoked."
In 2013 it was the comic part of Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream; now, she's tackling a very different role in Lady Macbeth. In both plays she has been directed by Best.
In Macbeth, she says, Shakespeare explores flaws in human nature, perverted ambition and the horrors that result. "The only way out is blood."
It raises interesting questions – for example, if Macbeth had not encountered the witches and their prophecy, would he have still murdered the king? – and depicts a Lady Macbeth who seems at once more resolute than her husband in hatching and carrying out their murderous plan yet more vulnerable: it is he, more accustomed to violence, who actually carries out the killing as she cannot bring herself to do it.
And it is Macbeth, Roberts says, who seems more aware of the likely consequences of their actions.
"He knows where it is going to go ...She focuses on the results, not the consequences."
But it's very much a case, Roberts says, of be careful what you wish for: gaining the throne is not the happy ending that Lady Macbeth had hoped for but a brutal, unhappy reign that sees them driven apart even from each other.
"They really, truly love each other but the love between them is poisoned and turned into something like hate."