Hazem Shammas: Leaving Macbeth’s body on the stage

After a hard day boiling in Macbeth’s intensity and wading through all the blood he spills during the play, actor Hazem Shammas has an instant release from the mire, gloom, regret and phantasmagorical evil of Shakespeare’s most complex villain. It’s one that brings him back down to earth with a bump each time he goes home.

“I’ve got three young boys under the age of six that jump on you,” he says with a laugh. “You have to leave work at work and be home and fully present. So bless them for that reality-check. I feel like I’m very lucky in that regard.

Hazem Shammas. Photo supplied. Top: Jacob Werner and Shammas in Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman.

“But it is hard. The psychology of Macbeth is something that you wrestle with constantly. Not that it’s overpowering and all-encompassing, but you definitely have to keep simmering the emotional and mental anguishes that he explores in this story.”

Shammas calls studying past great performances of the role “part of your life’s training”. “But closer to this production I’ve tried not to reference or remember so much,” he goes on. “I think a lot of the actors, past and future, will kind of hit similar marks. That’s the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing. It’s not so much being tainted by the masters from the past, but taking what they gave, and bringing it to your truth.”

With Shammas, that truth is being “a middle-aged product of migrants in western Sydney”, and so he’s sure his performance will be intrinsically different. Always on his bucket list, the role is the culmination of a career that began with him playing the Little Drummer Boy in kindergarten, and more recently saw him win a 2018 Logie for SBS’s Safe Harbour.

He says that part of the craft, not just of this role, but of all acting, is “exploring the psychologies that make us human”, and, having observed in himself some of the same restlessness that brought his father to Australia from Palestine, he agrees Macbeth is another extremely restless person.

“I find myself thinking about my father a lot during this process,” he says. “I’m fast approaching 50, and around that age he had a nervous breakdown and then unfortunately passed away early a few years later.” He refers to Macbeth’s “pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow” line, and suggests such a malaise is not uncommon among migrants leaving behind one life to try to carve out a new one, alone and against the odds. “That ambition and that restlessness is in Macbeth,” he continues, “and I kind of find it in myself through those resonances that dad has left me with.”

Photo: Vince Valitutti.

He says that his heritage also feeds into the role in another way: the importance of language and poetry in Palestinian culture; of “words that can describe the essence of life” – which is precisely a vast part of the power of Macbeth.

If his career now has an undeniable momentum (“Let’s not talk about it! Let’s not curse it!” he exclaims), he values all that has gone before. “All work is good work,” he says. “But, yeah, the roles are getting more daring and more interesting. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this for the past 20-something years… I guess I built a really born-of-the-building-sites hard-work ethic, and figured it’s a long game. I’m just interested in doing the work.”

Shammas enthuses about the centrality of the love story between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by Jessica Tovey; that their intertwined love and ambition “blind them to their immorality”. “We always try and bring it back to the tragedy of their break-up,” he says, “and the tragedy of their love for each other; that they kind of saw no other way to honour their love for each other but through this diabolical act and where it took them. So right to the end we’re trying to build that love story and that break-up story.”

He sees Macbeth as not just a great warrior, but “also a deep lover and a feeler and a thinker. And that’s probably what frustrates her as well: that he probably thinks and feels a little too much. But I think that that, all together, is why she loves him and why they love each other… There’s definitely a lot of passion, and we’re exploring that. I think they’re pretty hot on stage!”

When asked if the cast subscribes to the common Macbeth superstitions, he says, “We haven’t really talked about it, and so I’m guessing we do!” He describes the 2012 Bell Shakespeare production as “rife with incidents. So I think there’s a little bit of company heritage that might mean we’re doing to have to respect some of these superstitions. Fingers crossed!”

Macbeth: Playhouse, until April 2.