It’s probably not too bold to say that Shakespeare has been done every way possible by now. After all, he’s had a few years to run on, he’s out of copyright so you can chop him anyway you like and – let’s face it – the plays have done pretty well for themselves. As a devotee I’m always thirsty for another take on his works so when I saw that Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin were heading to the Young Vic (and later Birmingham Repertory Theatre and HOME) with Macbeth, my excitement was sent into overdrive.
Their vision ticks all my boxes. Starting out with the text and then gradually being overtaken by movement – with slick choreography by Guerin – the idea is to turn the Macbeths inside out and expose their mental decay through dance. This combined with the futuristic sound design by Clark and David McSeveney, and surreal movements of the witches (wrapped in nude body suits), made my European heart skip a little. But despite a killer opening with strobe lighting pulsating, as modern soldiers assassinate a traitor in a fashion we recognise only too well from the sadly too real videos in the media, the play gets stuck in the mud as it continues: my so-loved vision gets a bit blurred along the way.
The play is set in the landscape of a dark, strangely futuristic tunnel, with hidden doors on both sides providing escape for the soldiers and victims of Macbeth’s ambition. For the war scenes this works brilliantly but it provides a rather static environment for the rest of the play. John Heffernan plays Macbeth with a timid, empathetic touch that makes his actions stem from a moral desire rather than ambition. With a Duncan dressed like a clichéd mafia boss in shades and greys, carelessly stepping over body bags of children and lost souls, no wonder the Macbeths want to get rid of him. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth has moments of drive, but feeds into Heffernan’s gentle air, and though their human struggle is powerful it lacks a little oomph for a couple so famously ruthless. This said, as with her production of Medea, one of Cracknell’s strokes of genius is the domestic struggle and shared past of the two that is never highlighted in the play. When Lady Macbeth mentions having “given suck”, the atmosphere changes drastically, and what could have been a banality in other productions suddenly becomes the argument that wins Macbeth over. Both actors sustain this fragility throughout and are well-versed and connected, but we lose a grip on the text as the play struggles to decide how dance-driven it wants to be. A strong force though is Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Banquo, who brings the intensity and suspense that the play really needs.
There are some thrilling moments of dance and drama interlinking, but often they jar and despite having a great vision, they don’t sustain the unity long enough. I was desperately wishing for the Macbeths to be the movers, not just the dancers creating an environment for them, and the result is spurts of greatness that don’t really reach their full potential. A shame with great creative forces like these.
Macbeth is playing at the Young Vic until 23 January 2016, before touring to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and HOME. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.