Hot on the heels of the Young Vic’s bold, modern and fascinatingly tongue in cheek Measure for Measure comes a Macbeth that is bold, modern yet muddled by its own hyperbole. Powerful? Yes. Committed? No doubt. Intriguing? Kind of. But despite obvious efforts, Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s production seems to push the setting too far forwards in time and style to sit with the story itself, as it need hardly be said that the script is kind of alright as it stands.
An extra element is added to Shakespeare’s words by Lucy Guerin’s choreography, which has the three witches twisting, writhing and weaving across the stage in contemporary dance, and the porters in the infamous knocking scene doing a sort of hip hop sequence, their unanimous bouncing presumably designed to echo the sound that we would otherwise expect to hear. In some ways, this add-on evokes a heightened sense of the supernatural, but does sometimes upset the flow: the alternative knocking section seemed to go too long, slackening the suspense that would otherwise have been pulled taut at such a crucial moment. Indeed, the neon lights and techno beats merely hinted at the porters’ mild-natured rave before drunkenly pranced off to bed rather than anything more menacing.
The witches themselves maintain a disturbing fragility, their nude leotards and slow, slinky yet angular moves giving a jagged sense of ethereality. They are on the stage a huge amount, sometimes visible to everybody, sometimes just to Macbeth, and sometimes to nobody at all. In a clever touch, one regularly morphs into Banquo’s son, Fleance in one effective part of this complex interpretation.
Banquo, by the by, is superbly played by Prasanna Puwanarajah – a straight-up nice guy done wrong in an adaptation where the goodies and baddies are not very easy to identify. One usually thinks of Duncan as the kind old king – fair, wise, generous, compassionate – but on struts Nicholas Burns in a shiny grey suit with slicked back hair, dodgy sunglasses, cigarette in hand, looking like a Cuban drug lord. He casually purveys the bagged up bodies that his soldiers have laid out and audited, stepping over them and turning his nose up at injured men coming from the field. Said field contains none of the mud, blood and guts that one expects – this scenario is clean, clinical and covered in plastic bags amid Lizzie Clachan’s brutalist set, which comprises a never-ending corridor of doors with no handles.
So if Duncan is not to be trusted, then that might justify Mr and Mrs Macbeth in doing away with him; they are, in fact, doing humanity a favour by deposing such a tyrant, which would be a helpful explanation because they had both seemed so normal and temperate upon introduction that the rash idea of killing the king otherwise seems entirely out of character. But this new concept only takes us so far because when Macbeth’s new-found power corrupts so inevitably, it is all the less forgivable due to our knowledge of his hatred of the former oppressive regime. Perhaps the moral is simply supposed to be that all power corrupts, regardless of your virtue to start with. But everything is nonetheless confused; whilst Macduff and Duncan’s son Malcolm desperately plot Macbeth’s downfall, you want to be on their side but you can’t help but question why their side of the conflict is any better if the former king, whose name they defend, was so terrible too.
Having said that, an utterly inspired moment comes when Duncan is heaping honour onto Macbeth post-battle. Instead of just talking each other up in some locker room love-in, the scene is turned into a press conference where Duncan’s praise and Macbeth’s cringeworthy acceptance are stuttered through gritted teeth from a podium, in the direction of flashing cameras and with the awkwardness of forced public speaking.
There are a few other funny moments caused by similarly witty elucidations, largely from Lady Macbeth, played with unusual pensiveness by the hugely skilled Anna Maxwell Martin. Collected, composed and markedly erudite, this Lady Macbeth cannot be explained away by ardent zeal on the one hand, nor purely by icy calculation on the other. Maxwell Martin gives her considered intellect and, although this makes her plot seem all the more startling, it also makes her elevation through the ranks absorbing to watch as she becomes hostess-with-the-mostess, flirting dexterously with the smarmy Duncan, before tackling her husband’s spiralling behaviour.
In the title role, John Heffernan brings an equally rare dose of introspection. His Macbeth does not have the brawn or charisma you often see and, following his battle-weary entrance, this humble warrior endures obvious panic and very human fear at the task ahead. Though the added poignancy makes Macbeth more understandable at first, it puts his later actions well beyond comprehension.
In what looks like some dire cross between a prison, an asylum and a quintessential nightmare, there is brilliant tension and some terrific acting in this Macbeth – it just doesn’t quite deliver the story that we’re all familiar with.
This production of Macbeth is a Young Vic, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and HOME co-production in association with Lucy Guerin. At the Young Vic until 23rd January 2016 followed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 26th to 30th January 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours with no interval. For more information and to book tickets visit the website.