Thursday 28 November 2019

Her Hour Upon The Stage - Theatre Review

What: Her Hour Upon The Stage
When: 27 - 30 November 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Lucy Seale
Performed by: Emma Bampton, Liv Bell, Matt Bertram, Genevieve Simone Brott, Nicholas Kirkby, Isabel Knight and Annabelle Mitchell
Designed by: Nicola Dobinson
Lighting by: Oliver Ross
Music direction by: Merryn Hughes
Dramaturgy by: Ashleigh Morris
Stage Managed by: Shane Woods
Annabelle Mitchell, Liv Bell, Genevieve Simone Brott, and Emma Bampton
As we draw nigh of the summer garden Shakespeare onslaught in Melbourne for 2019/2020 there is a show at The Butterfly Club everybody must see first - Her Hour Upon The Stage. Billed as an adaptation of the mighty play Macbeth, Seale takes a moment to raise the dead and let the women of this play have a say about what went on on those Scottish moors and this is so well crafted in every way - writing, direction, acting - you will be missing the best offering on the table if you don't get down there this weekend.

Her Hour Upon The Stage is billed as an adaptation of the Bard's tale of the Scottish king, but I would suggest it is a response to, rather than an adaptation of. Flooded with a wonderfully crafted syntax and rhythm almost indistinguishable from the borrowed parts of the original text, Seale's play has all of that Elizabethan mystery, majesty, and angst Shakespeare is so known for, but asks modern questions about how history is reported. Which lens are we looking through and what influence do we wish to impose in our telling of these stories?

My last review, The Trojan Women, talked about how important choice of translation is when putting on a play. Seale investigates this question further by focussing a spotlight on our, arguably, most canonical English writer and what looking at history through his lens has done for (or to) women across time. She speaks to the misrepresentation of the witches as human female, rather than otherworldly beings which then creates the metaphor of women being unnatural creatures themselves.

There is also a conversation about being non-binary - as in the witches are neither spirits nor humans and do not exist in a binary measure which challenges us to understand that there are many things in this world - perhaps everything? - which is non-binary. This is a particularly significant conversation in Macbeth where the first time we see the character of Lady MacBeth she is imploring the spirits to remove her womanly softness and replace it with a core of steel just like a man. The irony that she says this because she realises her husband will be too weak to do what needs to be done despite being a man seems to be missed by everybody in the whole world since forever...

For those who don't know much about the original play, Macbeth was written later in Shakespeare's career soon after King Lear and right before Antony and Cleopatra. Macbeth was a real Scottish king but it is believed the Bard took his ideas from Holinshed's Chronicles rather than being a rigorous examination of history. Key elements he took from the Chronicles was the witches (which were beautiful sprites, not ugly crones) and perhaps the character of Banquo.

Anyway, 3 witches appear to Macbeth and tell him he is going to be king. He and his wife set about killing everybody to make it happen. His wife goes mad and kills herself, he gets all uppity so everyone rebels and he is eventually killed along with just about everybody else in the cast. Standard Shakespearean fair.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the source play is Lady Macbeth is considered to be one of the strongest (most horrible?) female characters created by this playwright - mostly because she demonstrates ambition and strength of will before going mad, as we all do of course... What Seale asks us to do in Her Hour Upon The Stage is take a look at these women and this woman in particular and ask questions about the huge gaps, silences, and lack of information Shakespeare leaves us with. Seale gives us a way to see the myopia of our patriarchal heritage and how vehicles such as these plays are a part of the structure put in place to keep the engines of power running the way they always have. Which is why we keep doing them over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Lady Macbeth was also a real historical figure. Her name was Gruoch. In Macbeth much is made of her inability to provide Macbeth with an heir and in typical fashion it is her barrenness which is the problem, not his possible infertility. In real life Gruoch did have a son to her previous husband (killed by Macbeth) so she was not bare of womb at all. Seale does not state this explicitly in Her Hour Upon The Stage but she does keep asking the question, what if Lady Macbeth already had a child? Doesn't that change so much of what she says and does?

More importantly, what if her child's life is dependent on her full blown support of her husband? Doesn't that change how we see her actions as well as her mental state? It certainly has to effect how you read her initial speech about hardening up. If she is as much a prisoner in this manner - be it in velvet chains - as anyone else in the play, would that not explain her decay as she sees child upon child die at the hands of kingly ambition? Of course, it all gets too hard for Shakespeare and he sends her off stage to kill herself just like he does with poor Ophelia...

Seale also examines the embedded reaffirmation of original sin. The witches are the serpent and Lady Macbeth (Mitchell) is Eve. Poor Adam (Macbeth) is the lost lamb led astray by the mighty power of some words said to him by people who just happen to have mammary glands. Macbeth is a strong, successful soldier but it is every man's fate to be bowled over by the tiny puffs of air created by the sound waves which come out of women's mouths when we speak. It is funny how our words of treachery are so powerful but whenever we speak about doing good and kind things men seem to be quite impervious..?

Not forgetting the men though, it is really quite hilarious when, upon being interrogated about his inability to not act upon the women's words, Macbeth (Kirkby) gets all pouty. As Macduff (Bertram) points, out it is harder to be a man than to be a soldier.

Okay, so I love the ideas in Her Hour Upon The Stage. Seale's writing craft is beyond magnificent and Morris' dramaturgy is brilliant but what about the show? The fantastic news is everything about this play is top notch.

The Butterfly Club stage is tiny - especially for a cast this size - but Seale has used the space well and Dobinson (design) has kept it clear apart from a couple of crates. This gives the actors all the space to use and they use it and their bodies with confidence and creativity, making vibrant and dynamic choices and creating tension and drama at the top level.

The costumes are the real tour-de-force. Dobinson has kept them historical and within the visual canon, but they are blood splattered as they arise from the killing fields and give a frisson of our favourite zombie classics to add a bit of fun as well as representing the blood baths Shakespeare liked to fill his plays with. Ross' lighting is also suprisingly evocative and powerful given it really just works in the red, blue and warm white spectrum in a tiny space.

Brott, Bampton, and Bell are fabulous as the witches (sprites?). There is a temptation, through the current common use of the phrase, to assume the non-binary commentary in Her Hour On The Stage is gender related but in the casting Seale does not follow that through, leaving it to be implied as a general conversation about our insistance on binary measures of all sorts. All three have clearly defined characters and appear to be on something of a corporeal/incorporeal spectrum themselves with Brott being rather whispy, Bell being very earthy and reptilian, and Bampton being somewhat closer to the human spectrum of the three.

I could keep enthusing about this show but it would take you longer to read this then to actually go and see Her Hour Upon The Stage. Instead, close this page and head on down to The Butterfly Club because there are only 3 more shows and you really do not want to miss it!

5 Stars

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