December 10, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ The Young Vic

The idea of a Macbeth co-directed by a director with classical experience (Carrie Cracknell) and a choreographer (Lucy Guerin) is an intriguing one, especially when this team has had prior success with a provocative Medea at the National. Yet the overall effect of the Young Vic’s new Macbeth was something less than the sum of its parts. Rather than being a coherent, physical exploration of the play, what I saw was two largely separate productions, spliced together and designed to within an inch of their lives.

Lizzie Clachlan’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting were fascinating. A trick of perspective created a long, tunnelled bunker in which the entire play took place, receding to a point far upstage just big enough for a person to squeeze through, and giving the impression of enormous people filling up the far end of the tunnel, Alice in Wonderland-style. Stark low-angle lighting from the downstage corners cast looming shadows on both walls, a thrilling visual effect that tripled the numbers of dancers on the stage. The perspective set came into its own in the final movement, allowing the approaching English army to fill a tiny space and dwarf the downstage, solitary Macbeth.

The focus on the visual design of the piece was clear throughout. The set transformed via a horizontal sliding cross-section of the corridor slickly sliding characters out of or into view. Panels opening down the entire length of both wall allowed actors to emerge from all locations into the narrow space of the playing area, allowing for a full Scooby Doo effect as Lady Macduff chased her children (dressed as ghosts) through doors and across the corridor. Death scenes were choreographed as flashes of near-still frames – most deaths showed a cut of the victim being grabbed, then another of a plastic bag being pulled over their heads, then another of the struggle, then a final one of the body being dragged away. As bagged bodies clogged the stage at various points, the repetitiveness of the creation and piling up of dead bodies became relentless.

The company was quite clearly divided in two. Five dancers (the three witches and two servants for Macbeth) performed long dance sequences; the rest of the cast were performing in a reasonably conservative Macbeth. The two companies, of course, shared the stage frequently, but the integration of the two was infrequent and poorly realised – too often the ‘play’ cast were standing upstage doing a basic move such as a shoulder shrug while the dancers filled the main stage with more complex choreography, for instance. Having the witches move in an idiom all of their own that distinguished them from the human cast made a lot more sense, but the concept was inconsistently applied. And at times the production fell into a somewhat mundane pattern of speech scene, dance scene, speech scene, dance that interrupted and fragmented any sense of forward narrative.

The problem was that so much of the choreography was boring. Neither a long dance scene set to hard beats celebrating Duncan’s arrival at the castle, nor a slightly later scene of the two Porters dancing through the night, offered anything to the production. The movements themselves were not particularly interesting – gyrations, a jagged use of arms, short hops – but more importantly they told no kind of story. Dance sequences began and ended in the same place; dancers were (mostly) synchronised rather than taking on roles in relation to one another; the sequences were all based around a relatively restricted number of repeated movements and gestures. When these sequences had narrative import their potential was clear – a long sequence where Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth was repeatedly laid out on the floor, then rose and walked in a circle with one of the dancers to be joined by an increasing number of new bodies who followed her falls, stood in for her sleepwalking in a way that was evocative of her own personal hell, even if on the night I saw it there were some issues with the fluidity. But too often the dance sequences served no function other than filler.

The movement of the witches was more interesting, but still frustratingly inconsistent. Again, there was little interpretive significance beyond ‘otherness’ to the witches, dressed in what appeared (to my weak eyes in very dim lighting) to be variations on full body stockings. At worst, their movements mimicked catwalks (confident marching in long straight lines, turning heads to look back at audience) and nightclubs (gyrating hips and heads). At best, their actions implied some interpretive interest. At times the witches and murderers fell into partial synchronisation with one another, and these moments where the movements of the witches appeared to be directly impacting on the human characters worked splendidly. When Macbeth finally received the news of Macduff’s birth, he slumped back hard against a wall, and the three witches did the same simultaneously, sliding down the wall with him and gazing straight into his face. The lack of consistency was my main frustration here – the bulk of the witches’ appearances seemed self-indulgent and aesthetic only; yet when they latched onto the action, there was fascinating potential. A similarly half-realised ideal was turning one of the witches into Fleance (the other two witches inexplicitly either pregnant or carrying a baby at this point, inexplicable for its randomness in relation to the rest of the production) – this led to a nice moment where the same witch became the embodiment of Banquo’s future line in the prophecy scene, but otherwise simply served to give one of the witches a semi-human role that had no lasting function.

The other key issue with the indulgent dance scenes was that, when they ended, the silence and stillness of the rest of the production was exaggerated to negative effect. At one critical juncture, the production shifted from a long, superfluous but energetic sequence of the two Porters dancing straight into the discovery of Duncan’s body, which was one of the most static and stilted scenes I’ve seen for some time. Cracknell attempted to inject some energy into the scene by having a klaxon sound that drowned out all speech on the stage for some time, allowing the stage picture to speak for itself in mime – a wonderful idea, but when the most dramatic action happening during this period is a couple of doors opening, hardly dynamic. When traumatic events happened in this production, actors stood about haplessly, until Lady Macbeth decided incongruously to faint. Later scenes saw the same – the battles leading up to Macbeth’s fall involved actors wandering in, lying down as bodies, then walking off again, some barely visible even for their brief appearance; the news of Lady Macduff’s death was greeted in the England scene with a calmness approaching indifference (the honourable exception being the moving, sharp delivery of the single line ‘I will do so, but first I must feel it as a man’ by Nicholas Burns), and the death of Macbeth himself was followed by more anti-climactic standing around. For a production that focused so much on movement, it was deeply frustrating that there was so little of it in the scenes that mattered, juxtaposed with so much superfluous dance in the interludes.

I’ve dwelt on the movement so far for its own role in overshadowing the play. It’s a shame, as there was also plenty to enjoy in the production. John Heffernan was a tremulous Macbeth, finding a quiet gravity in the verse that, given the pruning away of most of the play (two hours straight through, including the long movement sequences), put the spotlight firmly on him. Most scenes were severely compressed (the England scene, for example, excised the entirety of Malcolm’s feigned criticism of himself; the sleepwalking scene was severely curtailed and shorn of all its framing; the English army were only seen approaching rather than having their scenes), and Heffernan was required to bear the bulk of the dialogue. He shifted from his reflective persona, war-weary and first discovered slumped against the walls of the bunker, to a more unpredictable manager of affairs. He was brutal with Lady Macbeth, casting her away from him as soon as he came to power, and the production did excellent work in slowly showing the breakdown of their relationship, with Martin’s Lady Macbeth reluctant to approach him before the banquet scene. Macbeth also undertook the murder of Lady Macduff himself, following one of the more effective visual sequences as the blindfolded Lady (an excellent Cassie Layton) ran after her children in a game of hide-and-seek before running directly into him.

Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Banquo was under-used early on; his taciturn partnership with Macbeth set up a fine relationship between the two, but the party scenes (under a kingpin-like Duncan) turned him into a drunken foil and rather buried his arc. This was a shame as he came into his own later as a symbol – first as a laughing then glaring Ghost (who disappeared impressively into thin air during the banquet scene, dropping quickly through a trap), and then a glowering figure during the second set of prophecies as he crowned one of the witches as his heir. It was during the final movement, however, that all the aspects of the production came into interpretive focus through Banquo. He slumped in a downstage corner, his body contorted as dead, and grabbed a microphone dangling from the ceiling. He then proceeded to act as MC for the whole assault on Macbeth’s castle, while Macbeth slumped in the opposite corner. The two of them in spotlights, while the rest of the company moved on the main stage as the advancing army, the production became about this broken relationship. Macbeth speaking to a dead body was reminiscent of the ghoulish humour of Benicio del Toro’s character in Sin City. Banquo laughed as Lady Macbeth said that Banquo couldn’t rise from his grave; he delivered the news of her death and of Birnam Wood advancing and, in a deeply sardonic tone, delivered reports from the battlefield to Macbeth, often signing off with a laugh. The visual, aural and tonal effect of these sequences was superlative, perfectly capturing a sense of Macbeth’s trauma, and also finding a cold, inevitable humour in the play’s final moments.

This wasn’t a coherent production of Macbeth, even if it was full of ideas. Given the co-directors’ wonderful work on Medea I was deeply disappointed to see dance being used to interrupt rather than tell this story, and the production felt like two disjointed productions that only sporadically came together – although when they did, it was often to interesting effect. Aesthetically intriguing, the production ultimately failed to integrate its elements, and its misplaced energies were a waste of a cast with so much potential.

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