Speak his name
How Shakespeare lured home Aussie Hollywood star Jai Courtney
Jai Courtney has been a gladiator, an Anzac officer, a member of a World War II bomber crew. He has played a resistance fighter in the Terminator franchise; he has attacked Tom Cruise, gone on a rampage in Russia with Bruce Willis and been drafted into DC Comics’ Suicide Squad. Yet he has never been keen to be tagged simply as an Aussie action star.
He also has been looking for work that explores a different kind of conflict. He has it now, in the most challenging terms: he is playing the title role in Macbeth, a Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by Simon Phillips that opens next month.
He has wanted this kind of experience for a while, Courtney says. He has been “scared as hell about what it was going to demand of me, but also just hungry for that chance to commit myself to something like this”.
For MTC, a Hollywood name is undoubtedly a box-office draw. For Phillips, there’s the appeal of an actor who can so readily embody a warrior, the Macbeth we see at the beginning of the play. For this production, Phillips says, “I was after someone who could really be it. Someone who could capture vividly the sense of beginning as that incredibly empowered person who’s given that temptation of being king when he’s flushed with success. He’s been as viscerally successful and triumphant as you can imagine.”
He was, of course, keen to be sure Courtney could tackle the text itself. MTC voice coach Leith McPherson turns out to have been the last person to have directed Courtney in a Shakespeare production, 10 years ago, when he was a student at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts and she was doing A Winter’s Tale. Phillips asked her about Courtney and Shakespeare, he says, “and she was very quick to give that the thumbs up”.
So, on January 2 Courtney started work, reading and having Skype sessions with McPherson. Preparing before rehearsal started, he says, he always felt that immersing himself in the text was the primary research. “I familiarised myself with certain ideas, I did some reading on the occult, and some bits and pieces, other books, Antony Sher’s book about playing Richard III”, but it always came back to the text.
He embraced the idea that with Shakespeare “there’s no endgame, it requires constant exploration and you don’t ever work to a point where you’ve nailed it. Things will continue to evolve right until the end of the run, in some sense, and beyond, and probably six months after we finish I’ll figure out how to play it.”
Phillips likes to give his Shakespeare productions a contemporary context, and this Macbeth is no exception. It’s not about transposing the play into a new world — Macbeth as Tony Soprano, Scotland as the White House — more about finding fruitful images and parallels.
“The language is complex, and if the audience is seeing something they relate to, that can help,” Phillips says. “It’s a handhold inside the language.”
Courtney is fascinated by these possibilities, and curious about how they’ll play out. “In some ways those ideas make me nervous, but it doesn’t feel right in this day and age to put this on stage in Melbourne with a bunch of guys with long swords,” he says.
In many ways, Macbeth is a story of action. Courtney talks about the speed of his character’s transformation from triumph to ambition to the commission of an act “so terrible that it unhinges him … He gives himself over to the idea of chaos” to the point where all is meaningless, then, with his dying breath, “attempts to restore a sense of honour”.
Finding the right context for this dramatic shift, Phillips says, is tricky. “The first act is almost like a thriller, rushing along, and the last two acts are the same.” Yet in the middle of the play “there’s a completely different kind of intensity”, revolving around the intimate psychological drama of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, his partner in ambition.
Finding the right Lady Macbeth was another piece of the puzzle, Phillips says. “Once I’d cast Jai, I knew what I was looking for, someone who could in some way match that energy.” Geraldine Hakewill, he says, “has a magnificence about her that works as the female to Jai’s male”.
On the surface, Courtney’s rise has been swift, although he doesn’t quite see it that way. After WAAPA and a couple of local TV gigs, his first significant break was in an American series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which was shot in New Zealand. Playing Varro, a Roman citizen turned gladiator to pay his gambling debts, “was a huge deal for me”, eight months’ work that meant leaving Australia and being part of a large-scale, well-resourced production.
He became close to the show’s star, Andy Whitfield, who died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011. He gave Courtney friendship and professional advice about what to do after his time on Spartacus was over. The experience of the show, Courtney says, gave him the impetus to go to Los Angeles and try his luck, as well as “something to talk about when I got there, and a little bit of money in my back pocket to stay alive while I was there”.
Michael Douglas caused a stir in 2015 when he suggested Australian and British actors were taking roles from American actors because they brought more to the screen. The British were better trained, and “with the Aussies”, Douglas said, “it’s the masculinity”. Courtney has heard this assertion about Australian performers many times, but he’s keen to point to other traits he thinks are just as important — what he describes as “a lack of fear in exploring vulnerability that isn’t the opposite of masculinity, that strengthens a character”.
In Los Angeles, he found representation and started to land roles. As well as the bad guy misguided enough to take on Cruise in action thriller Jack Reacher, he was Willis’s estranged son in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise. He was John Connor (the fourth actor to play the character) in Terminator Genisys; he was a member of a World War II aircrew in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken; and he was a lieutenant-colonel trying to help identify the Anzac dead in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner.
He also appeared in a smaller film in Australia, Matthew Saville’s Felony, a police drama with a script by Joel Edgerton, who also stars in it. Courtney read the screenplay, he says, and pushed hard to be considered for a role, well before the project got off the ground: “I was desperate to come on board.” It’s a film full of moral ambiguity, in which characters make bad decisions for what they believe are good reasons. “At the centre of it you’ve got a man” — Edgerton’s character — “who’s done something really wrong,” Courtney says, “but somehow you want the best for him.” He gives a quiet, watchful performance as a cop who finds that good intentions are not enough.
There’s something about playing conflicted characters that appeals to him, he says. He has a film coming out in June called The Exception that gave him similar rewards: he plays a Wehrmacht soldier during World War II sent to investigate the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Christopher Plummer plays the kaiser and he’s just a dream to work with, it was such a privilege.”
Since that production, he says, it has been a while since he has been on a film set, by choice. To take a role, he says, “I had come to a point where it had to be about growth, in some sense. If it felt like a step backwards or I could have been taking it for the wrong reasons then I wasn’t going to do it.”
His biggest film, in budget and box-office terms, is Suicide Squad, a 2016 comic book adaptation that did well enough financially but didn’t find favour with critics or elements of the fan base. Courtney — who played a bombastic anti-hero supervillain who wields a boomerang and has a soft spot for a toy pink unicorn — is philosophical about its reception: “I loved the movie and we had a lot of fun doing it,” he says, but adds it could have been a victim of the intense anticipation built up around it.
He lost a bet with a fellow cast member, Queenslander Margot Robbie, over the result of a State of Origin game, and has the name of her home state tattooed on his wrist. “Not something I’m proud of,” he says. “But it makes a good story.”
He can look at his performance analytically, he says, when he watches a finished film. “I don’t necessarily enjoy watching myself. I think some things turned out better than others; some stuff I can’t watch again.” He’s just as interested in the work of others, he adds. “I want to hear the sound design and see how it’s edited — those elements you’re not privy to when you’re shooting are really fascinating to me.”
Filmmaking was not his focus growing up. As a high school student in Sydney he was given a taste for acting by an innovative project run out of the NSW Department of Education. He auditioned every year for its ensemble program. “By the time I was in Year 12 we were putting on full-on shows, working with voice coaches and doing a mini-season in a theatre, mimicking the atmosphere of a professional company,” he says. “Paul Viles was the guy who was running that department at the arts unit and he’d really helped me develop that interest.”
At that stage, he says, the height of his ambition would have been to appear on stage at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre. He decided to take the next step, auditioning for drama schools: National Institute of Dramatic Art, Victorian College of the Arts and WAAPA. He was accepted by the last.
Even with the experience he’d had, drama school was a culture shock. At first, he says, “I felt like a fish out of water. I think there was a total energy shift from being in the suburbs and being around my mates and playing footy (league).” Somehow, “I was still exploring my curiosity. I didn’t feel like an actor yet.” It took time to find his feet.
He did a couple of plays in Perth after he graduated: The Turning with Perth Theatre Company and Cyrano de Bergerac with Black Swan. It has been a while since he has been on stage; about six years, he says, since he was part of a Sydney drama co-operative and had to fill in at the last minute for an actor who suddenly got a high-paying film gig. At 24 hours notice, he recalls, he had to learn his lines to play Andrey in The Three Sisters. “I’ve had a bit more time to get ready for this one.”
He was well prepared for some aspects of an acting life, he says, but there are some things only experience can teach. “There’s a lot of argument about whether drama schools prepare actors enough for the reality of the professional world, but I don’t really know how you do. You can’t simulate rejection and the kind of hustle required to stay afloat during the tough times.
“It’s a bizarre thing — so many of us want to act, but when you get out into the world you spend very little of your time actually getting to do that.” In the early years, “unless you’re creating work for yourself and attaching to co-op theatre, for some people getting an ad is the most performing they’ve done in a year, and that’s a reality of it”.
Even now, he says, “I’ve never been at a place where I’m fending off work opportunities at every turn. Occasionally you’re in a position where you know what might be happening after the thing you’re working on, but more often than not it’s back to the drawing board.”
Success brings additional expectations: red carpet appearances, the media spotlight, publicity tours and fan attention, all of which he seems to take in his stride. He has never been on Facebook, and confines his social media activity to Instagram, with a slight hiccup when he discovered there was another user pretending to be him. “I thought it was funny at first, but then some of the stuff they were posting gave me the shits.” He tries to use the platform to engage with fans in a fairly straightforward way. “If I think about it too much it starts to feel like work.”
After Macbeth, it turns out that he does know what he’ll be doing next. He’ll scarcely have time to draw breath, going straight to South Australia to star alongside Geoffrey Rush in Storm Boy, a new take on Colin Thiele’s children’s book that was adapted into a much-loved film in 1976.
He couldn’t say no, he says. “I was so excited to hear about the possibility of it and then I read this beautiful script with a present-day story that harks back to the original and it’s balanced really nicely.
“I’d love some down time, but I’ll get that when the film’s done. Ask me again in eight weeks’ time, after I’ve been doing eight shows a week.”
Macbeth is at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, from June 5 to July 15.
Review: Macbeth, Melbourne Theatre Company
This is Director Simon Phillips’ second Macbeth for the MTC. It ought to be recognised as a great and bold production and celebrated for its quintessentially Australian scepticism towards authority and tradition. It has the potential to guide generations more comfortable with the conventions of cinema into the orbit of both Shakespeare and the theatre respectively. It does so without sacrificing any of the majesty of the original verse, the richness of the themes or quality of the acting. After an enthralling 110 minutes without interval, you’re left with a feeling of sheer enjoyment at having been so entertained.
The recruitment of Jai Courtney (Macbeth), of Divergent (2014) and Suicide Squad (2016) fame, was a masterstroke in casting. He’s the latest in the rich vein of Australian exports, such as Russell Crowe and Sam Worthington, who have ridden into Hollywood on the back of their rugged masculinity and natural acting abilities. Courtney perfectly aligned the dramaturgy of the production with what was effectively a Hollywood blockbuster on stage. Such a cinematic production is not a wholly unchartered territory for the MTC. Director Simon Phillips has reprised the tenor of his MTC 2005 King Lear (starring the late Frank Gallacher as Lear) which similarly captured a larger than life aesthetic, with its on-stage waterfall, cars, and motorbikes.
One would be mistaken to deride this production for its overwrought Hollywood features, such as Ian McDonald’s score, which was effective but somewhat trite, or to obsessively dwell on the incongruity of Courtney’s unburnished Australian accent with the complexities of Shakespearean verse. Instead, it is instructive to embrace Phillips’s Macbeth on its own terms, informed by an understanding of how it’s communing with other distinctly Australian productions of Macbeth such as Geoffrey Wright’s (2006) and Justin Kerzer’s (2015).
Each of these films can be said to have influenced the gritty, sparse and devastated industrial space which Phillips has created. With this understanding in place, one can more fully appreciate Phillips’ deep understanding of the sense of Shakespeare, and the character of Macbeth with all his soldierly limitations. No, this is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. This is Macbeth, as Shakespeare would have had him. A brutish and physical soldier-king more comfortable with the imperatives of action than with rambling philosophical deliberations and the decorum and power-politics of the royal court.
Shaun Gurton was innovative and quite brilliant as set director. Phillips made much use of Gurton’s revolving stage, which not only facilitated seamless transitions between scenes and acts but also had the effect of creating depth and component parts within individual scenes. The stage rotated clockwise when the fates were working in Macbeth’s favour, and as the play hurtled towards the end of its tragic arc, the stage (as Wheel of Fortune) turned anti-clockwise.
Artistically, one of Gurton’s most arresting images was in Act 3, when a dashing Macbeth – in black leather riding boots and with whip in hand – commissions the murders of Banquo and Fleance. Set in an equestrian stable, the audience are confronted with a backdrop of heavy black boxes (resembling coffins) interspersed with roughly ten steel poles standing erect. Two saddles hang on each pole, one stacked over the other with stirrups akimbo. The chilling effect rendered is that of human corpses hanging in the background behind Macbeth and the murderers, foreshadowing the bloodshed to come. This is but one example of Gurton capturing the macabre, tense, and dark nature of the play’s moral universe.
Esther Marie Hayes also deserves special tribute for her inspired and detailed efforts as Costume Designer, which were distinguished by the array of textures and colours befitting such a foreboding production. Of note were the elegant dresses and silken jumpsuits of Lady Macbeth, the robust military fatigues of the soldiers, the resplendent royal garb of the nobles, and the grungy black coats and leathers for the homeless – but very Melbourne – three witches.
Geraldine Hakewill is a revelation as Lady Macbeth and was enchanting and compelling on stage. From the outset, the audience was every bit as under her spell as was Macbeth, seduced by the lustre of her red silken jumpsuit, her celestial physique and perfect diction. A contemporary of Courtney’s at WAAPA, one could detect the pair’s natural affection and comfortability with each other poured into their roles on stage. The young Hollywood power couple exuded an irresistible physical attraction for one another, and for power. Dan Spielman (Macduff) served brilliantly as an austere and rough foil to Courtney. This was to be expected, given his experience as Macbeth in Bell Shakespeare’s 2012 production.
Theatre has an ability to polarize people, especially Shakespeare enthusiasts. This production has certainly done that. It must also be said that theatre can struggle to engage those not familiar with plays, poetry, literature and music. These great swathes of people – old and young – too often become disengaged, and Phillips’s Macbeth represents an excellent bridge for these demographics to immerse themselves in Shakespeare and the theatre. Simon Phillips’s production of Macbeth has the rare ability to transfix all members of the audience for different reasons, whether it be the sublime quality of the set and costumes, the rawness and strength of the acting, or the overall ‘Hollywood’ production values. Inevitably, there are faults to find, but the positives of the production far outweigh its shortcomings. Bravo, MTC.
I'm coming to Melbourne soon, do you have suggestions for good eats/non-touristy ways to spend time? thx ^-^
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