by William Shakespeare
Directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerrin
Designed by Lizzie Clachan
Young Vic, London
Saturday 12th December 2015, 2.30 pm
Nicholas Burns – King Duncan / MacDuff
Mark Ebulué – Ross, soldiers
Thomasin Gulgec – murderer
John Heffernan – Macbeth
Ben Lamb – Malcom
Cassie Layton – Lady MacDuff / Lennox
Anna Maxwell-Martin – Lady Macbeth
Ana Beatriz Meireles – witch / child
Jessie Oshodi- witch / child
Prassana Puwanarajah – Banquo
Ira Mandela Siobhan – Porter, murderer
Clemmie Sveaas – witch, child
The coronation of Macbeth
The Young Vic is into electrified Shakespeare this autumn, with Macbeth hard on the heels of Measure for Measure with a similar lighted frame around a proscenium stage. I’ve seen dance Macbeths, rattling armour and kilt Macbeths, full length Macbeths, truncated Macbeths, Scottish accented Macbeths, Futuristic Macbeths, Stalinist Macbeths, Gangster Macbeths. The Young Vic 2015 version is a significant dance theatre production. It’s co-directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin, following their Medea at the National Theatre … Cracknell’s the theatre director, Guerin the dance theatre director / choreographer.
The text is heavily cut and re-ordered, and very well cut it is too. The acting is first rate, so is the dance, and the two are better integrated than we had ever expected, and we loved the dance / text balance. The music, by Clark, was solidly impressive. I’d say five of the cast were principally dancers, the rest actors … but the joins didn’t show. And yes, a lot of critics disliked it and gave it two stars. None went above three stars. We found ourselves in an odd position. On Friday night we thought Pinter’s The Homecoming was not as good as the critical rating, On Saturday we thought The Young Vic’s Macbeth was far better than the critical rating.
Lady Macbeth crowns Macbeth. Banquo behind him, then two witches (in wrong costume)
This is the third Lizzie Clachan design in a year. I was highly critical of The Beaux Stratagem at the National Theatre because we were sitting to one side and missed large chunks of the play because of the set. Then As You Like It at the National was technically spectacular, but was no Forest of Arden for us. This Macbeth set won us over, one of the best in a strong year. The set is cement coloured and recedes, sloping up to a narrow point, so it’s like a tunnel or corridor in an underground bunker with perspective. The sloping sides, floor and roof make people in the rear doorway appear larger than life. The sides have many doors … so that in brief blackouts people can appear and disappear. At the rear, rooms can slide into view … a tiled torture chamber, and two different curved exits. It all works smoothly. It’s claustrophobic, but also has a great sense of depth. A long rectangular section can raise to be a platform, a bed or a banqueting table.
The Witches (in wrong costume) carry on a body bag (this one is Duncan)
Did I need to say it’s modern dress? It starts with an execution … a man has a transparent hood placed on his head, and is garrotted (these two forms of execution are repeated as standard throughout). Flash. Blackout, He has been decapitated. His head is held up – stylised plaster. No blood. A figure is crouched against one wall, trembling as if in post-traumatic shock. Macbeth. The military are in desert camouflage. Then as the witches appear, the stage starts to fill with body bags … first at the front at adult size, then further back with child-sized and baby-sized. The witches are in flesh coloured costumes and are basically dancers, though they do their lines well. At points one appears with pregnant belly, another carries a stuffed baby.
Three reviews liken the set to Abu Ghraib, which is reasonable enough, but for Middle East execution and torture, you definitely don’t need to have Americans present. Duncan, the King, appears. Light grey suit, moustache. Sharp-suited. One reviewer thought the reference was Saddam … that’s because at the end, Macbeth is pulled out of a trapdoor, so was hiding like Saddam. But in the Duncan era, we both thought Assad. OK, generic Middle-Eastern dictator. Having announced that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth and Banquo line up with him for the official photos, looking excruciatingly uncomfortable.
Macbeth (John Heffernan) and Lady Macbeth (Anna Maxwell-Martin)
The secret was casting first rate actors who could extract the very last drop from the amount of abbreviated text that was left intact. John Heffernan is a toweringly good Macbeth, the equal of Sean Bean, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Slinger and James McAvoy, to name just four significant Macbeths of recent years. Hefferman does things with the lines that are new and beautifully weighted. The red hair and beard even make him look Scottish. Then Anna Maxwell-Martin is Lady Macbeth. Reviews were uncomfortable with having such excellent principal actors, delivering lines in a style that would gladden the RSC or Globe, with such contrasting dance and action around them … in fight scenes, actors are slung diagonally sliding across the width and depth of the set.
The nay-saying focuses on whether it’s the “Macbeth” that Shakespeare wrote. There is an intrinsic problem which it shared with Jamie Lloyd’s dystopian Macbeth set in a future Scotland in a state of anarchy. In both doubts focus on Duncan. If Duncan is a brutal dictator, then there’s little sense in Macbeth talking about how good and innocent he was. Here Duncan in a clean suit, rules over brutal torture and decapitation … his suit stays clean, even though the soldiers carrying the body bags are swathed in plastic aprons because of the thankfully unseen gore. As he’s receiving Macbeth and Banquo as newly-promoted, the tiled torture cell appears at the back with a hooded figure receiving electric shocks … in the time scale of this version, it’s the previous Thane of Cawdor (NOT the one killed at the beginning as some reviewers thought). When he arrives at Macbeth’s castle … or rather identical bunker (!) … he presents Lady Macbeth with a necklace and greasily tries to chat her up at the back of the scene while she flirts. This Duncan is no better than Macbeth. His son, Malcolm, in Hippie T-shirt comes across as a spoiled brat too – though he assumes stature after he’s been in England (So you see, Nicola Sturgeon … we English do have a civilising effect!) So a Duncan who truly deserves to get his just desserts takes away Macbeth’s angst … though as Macbeth says, Duncan deserved triple protection from him as guest, cousin and king. But the ultimate sin of regicide isn’t really going to play here.
The murder build up and aftermath is the only time we see blood … artfully smeared on Macbeth’s shirt, and all over his arms. It’s a relief after the vast amounts of blood sloshing about on stages in 2013 and 2014. Theatres have calmed down on the gore. This is the section of the great quotable lines, all delivered with exactitude and inspired freshness.
The banquet has the table raise, transparent plastic chairs are set out with a gold-padded one for Macbeth. The food is flesh-coloured on flesh-coloured trays, lifted and rotated by the witches, sitting against a wall. The drink is pale red, medicinal looking. Banquo’s murder is ordered off stage, and he’s a physical presence, face streaked with white. Prassana Puwanarajah as Banquo is another outstanding acting performance in this play. In the closing sections, he slumps as ghostly Banquo against the side wall with a microphone linking, narrating, doing messenger bits, all in character.
For the family MacDuff’s murder, two of the witches put on Trick or Treat white sheets with ghost eyeholes and flit about as the children. Lady Macduff (Cassie Layton) has to stay dead in an awkward position an awully long time before being dragged off stage … a feat of retaining immobility. We were particularly taken with the scene where the messenger tells MacDuff (Nicholas Burns) and Malcolm (Ben Lamb) about the death of his children. It was effective and affecting. One of the best we’ve seen it performed … Burns as a stuttering MacDuff resonated with us after the play.
Costume was good … a subtle touch was the elaborate silver shoes on the men later. The costumes in on line photos are not quite right. The dancers did not have blonde wigs, the central dancer (Jessie Oshodi) didn’t have a purple section over her thighs. The dancers were covered head to foot in flesh colours.
The Murderers dance – shadows are a major part of the lighting plot
We walked out at the end and our joint first word this time was “Brilliant.” It was right up there among the most enjoyable plays of the year. We discussed it at length, and we discussed those two star assessments. Our first thought was five stars. It was a great afternoon, thrilling, entertaining, exciting with tremendous dancing … the two “murderers” … Thomasin Gulgec and Ira Mandela Siobhan … had some frantic and brilliant dance pieces … and topped off by a finely judged Macbeth by John Heffernan. In the end, the severely truncated text and the doubts over what happens to guilt when Duncan’s a total bastard too have to shave off a star. But five star as dance theatre, five star for set, lighting and sound, and five stars for John Heffernan. If they gave it an additional word in the title (2015? Dance?) so that we don’t expect “Macbeth” I’d give it five.
FOUR STARS (PLUS) **** +
Two hours flew by. Great sightlines. The hard two person bench seats do make two hours without an interval an ordeal for the buttocks. We used to find the Sam Wanamaker hard until we got used to it, but you do need to stand up and stretch after the 90 minutes that research shows is the preferred maximum time on hard seats. You get to do that at the Wanamaker. But an interval would not have worked in this production.
At £3, it’s 25% cheaper than average, but it is VERY thin with just the one short, large point size essay on Macbeth. Very poor by Globe /RSC / NT standards.
Dominic Cavendish – Daily Telegraph, 2 stars, **
Neil Norman, Daily Express – 2 star **
Natasha Tripney- The Stage, 2 stars **
Maxie Szalwinska – Sunday Times, 2 stars **
Michael Billington, The Guardian – 3 stars ***
Paul Taylor- The Independent, 3 stars ***
Susannah Clapp, The Observer – 3 star ***
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard – 3 stars, ***
CONNECTED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
Macbeth – McAvoy 2013, Trafalgar Studio, James McAvoy as Macbeth
Macbeth, RSC 2011 Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth
Macbeth – Tara Arts 2015 (Shakespeare’s Macbeth) on tour, Poole Lighthouse
Macbeth – Globe 2016, Ray Fearon as Macbeth
LIZZIE CLACHAN (DESIGNER)
King Lear – National Theatre 2014 (Regan)
Henry V – Grandage Season