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Carapetis stars in Macbeth: our future nightmare landscape, if we don't hold each other accountable

State Theatre Company South Australia's resident artist Elena Carapetis on the relevance of Shakespeare 400 years on, and her commitment to diverse stories on the stage

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Actor and playwright Elena Carapetis is set to star in Macbeth as Lady Macduff. Photo: Sia Duff

It wasn't so long ago when my agent would put me up for a role and I'd go and they'd say 'there aren't any Greek roles in the show, sorry we can't offer Elena anything'
23 August 2017

As the State Theatre Company Soth Australia's resident artist for 2017, Elena Carapetis is welcoming each opportunity that comes her way to work with some of Australia's best talent.

Since January the actor, director and playwright has co-written the play Sista Girl, written an adaption of A Doll's House and is now in anticipation over her first role on the job as an actor in Macbeth.

Staged at Adelaide's Dunstan Playhouse, Carapetis has been cast to join the actors ensemble as Lady Macduff alongside fellow guest artists Peter Carroll and Christopher Pitman.

Her third professional play doing Shakespeare with State Theatre Company SA follows on from A Comedy of Errors (a Bell Shakespeare coproduction) and Othello, the latter of which she feels particularly connected given it is set in her mother's birthplace of Cyprus, but she says Macbeth is one of her particular favourites.

"It's such an interesting play. Germaine Greer talks about Macbeth being a story about a man who tries to kill his own soul and fails, and Geordie (Brookman) our director, his take on it is that it's what happens when life loses all sanctity," says Carapetis.

The play follows the story of a Scottish general; Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches that he will one day become the King of England. The thought consumes him, and with the encouragement of his wife, he goes on to murder King Duncan and take the Scottish throne. Despite being first staged in 1606, Carapetis says the themes and moral of the story are, unfortunately, all too relevant over 400 years on.

"Dehumanising people has become normalised not only by extreme people, but people who are in positions of power and who have a voice. There's a dehumanisation that's occurring that we're in real danger of getting sucked into unless we really call it out and that's what the power of theatre is. This play and this production is a nightmare landscape of what we could become if we don't hold each other accountable," the artist explains.

While she admits to being saddened that Shakespeare's work is still relevant, in that our evolution hasn't gone far enough in teaching us how to live together peacefully despite our differences, Carapetis says that it is not to diminish the playwright's brilliance, who she says had an insight into people akin to the supernatural.

"He explores throughout all of his plays issues of race and feminism, and dehumanisation, and war, and violence, and karma. He was quite an extraordinary person and it's a marvel that his work is still so relevant, but it also breaks my heart as a human being that we haven't evolved beyond it," she reaffirms.

In preparation for Macbeth, Carapetis says she has been reflecting long and hard on the frictions within society and subsequently the political landscape, and so far has put it down to a lack of connectivity.

"When we disengage from each other we lose our connection as human being to human being and we forget how to communicate - to speak from a place of compassion and empathy," something she says has always come naturally to her, identifying as a natural empath who comes from a long line of them.

"To be an actor you have to have empathy to understand the characters that you're playing. You may not like them, but it is your job to get underneath their skin and to understand why someone behaves the way that they behave, and to make that make sense to you. And as an artist, as an actor, that's a real privilege because that's a skill that I like to think that I take into the world with me," at which point, she goes on to cite the popular aphorism by Mahatma Gandhi: 'You must be the change you want to see in the world'.

This philosophy is one that Carapetis in large part attributes to growing up in a close-knit migrant family in South Australia; her mother born in Cyprus and her father is Australian-born, with strong familial roots in Ikaria, Greece.

"We come from a culture where we do rely on each other and where it truly does take a village to raise a child and support a family. You're constantly having to think of things from other peoples' points of view and I think that's the beauty and the richness of our culture. In fact not just our culture, but of many traditional cultures around the world, including the First Nation's cultures in Australia," which she has had the privilege of experiencing firsthand over the past couple of years through her work.

But unfortunately this connection and continuity between, albeit diverse, cultures is something that has only just started to be recognised and celebrated on our screens and stages, which Carapetis says is ironic given the canon of western theatre evolved out of ancient Greece.

"When I was a kid, our stages and our screens were really white - by white I mean Anglo. I know I'm not a person of colour but I don't feel white. And it wasn't so long ago when my agent would put me up for a role and I'd go and they'd say 'there aren't any Greek roles in the show. Sorry we can't offer Elena anything'. They really had to push and say 'well, she's Australian of Greek heritage, so why can't these characters in an Australian play be of different backgrounds?'" the NIDA graduate reveals.

"So every time we do a Q&A with school kids after the show, I wonder if those kids are Greek, I wonder if those kids are Middle Eastern or Italian, whatever the case may be . . . just for them to see a face and a story and a voice that reflects back on them is really important."

With her years of experience as an actor and playwright, Carapetis is proud to be a part of the State Theatre Company SA's committment to shifting the paradigm by contributing her own story.

She has been commissioned by the company to write a new play that touches on her cultural background. But for now her focus is on Macbeth.

Given the athleticism that comes with acting, Carapetis says she is looking forward to joining the acting ensemble, who eight months into her residency, are at their peak and hopes audiences will walk away somewhat enlightened.

"We're just scared of being vulnerable around each other I think. I don't know how we're going to solve that. But that's what I love about theatre," she says.

"Theatre is this fabulous mirror; it's a mirror that's held up to society and if you go to the theatre and see a little bit of yourself in the characters and the stories that you're watching, and if it makes you think about how you move through the world then we've done our job."

The season of 'Macbeth' runs from 25 August - 16 September at Dunstan Playhouse (Festival Dr, Adelaide, SA). To purchase tickets, visit the State Theatre Company's website.

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