It could be the challenge of a set designer’s dreams. Or it could be the stuff of their worst nightmares. In 2013, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton pulled aside set and costume designer Alice Babidge and put the question to her: how about designing “the Scottish play” (as it’s called in theatre circles, for fear naming it will bring bad luck), Macbeth?
But, the catch: how would Babidge feel about setting the play in the auditorium, and seating the audience on the stage?
The award-winning NIDA graduate has tackled everything from the 10-hour theatrical extravaganza, War of the Roses starring Cate Blanchett and the film Snowtown, to designing a recent Vogue cover shoot. But never before has she seen the inversion of a performance space.
“My response was, ‘it’s pretty exciting!’” says Babidge. “It’s a great play for it. It becomes about the audience being part of the theatre making. They witness the workings of how theatre is made.
Babidge has extended the stage to seat around 350 people and opted to make use of the entire 800-seat theatre for her set, complete with stalls below and the steeply raked circle above.
Working in her favour is the cast. With Hugo Weaving takes on the complex inner world of the titular character, supported by John Gaden and Paula Arundell.
Babidge will dress them in contemporary costumes to embody what is, essentially, a contemporary tale of greed and a blinding drive for power.
“I think one of the best ways for the audience to relate to characters is to make them recognisable,” she says. “The stories have a great universality which is why we still do them.”
Babidge says, despite the unusual set up, the challenge for her is still the same. “It’s about clarity of storytelling – making what you hope is a good piece of theatre. And that’s the challenge I have every day I go to work.”
Macbeth runs at the Sydney Theatre until September 27. The show is sold out however a limited number of tickets will be released daily.