Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Theatre review: Macbeth (Young Vic)

When Carrie Cracknell directed Medea at the National, Lucy Guerin's choreography was singled out as a major part of the production's atmosphere. Now, for Macbeth at the Young Vic, Cracknell and Guerin share equal directing credit as they attempt to fully integrate dance with Shakespeare's text. Macbeth (John Heffernan) is the star general in Duncan's (Nicholas Burns) Scottish army, but an encounter with three witches feeds his ambitions and makes him impatient to take the throne himself. He and his wife (Anna Maxwell Martin) goad each other into a plot to kill Duncan in his sleep and take his kingdom. They succeed, but as with so many Shakespearean kings he finds power hard to wield. Soon he's arranging more murders to cover up the way he came to the throne, and to quash any new threats.

The production's breaking off into dance and movement sequences is clearly its focal point, and within minutes of it starting I was concerned that this seemed to be at the expense of the verse-speaking.

This turns out not to be as bad as I first feared, but the speech isn't always clear and the cuts to the text sometimes baffling ("Her husband's to Aleppo gone..." Whose husband? You just jumped in halfway through a story.) Maxwell Martin's delivery in particular is a very mixed bag - a lot of the time I really liked her natural, conversational style, but at times her line readings have weird tempos and emphases that make the dialogue sound like gibberish.

It certainly looks impressive, with the perspective set a concrete tunnel of flickering lights reminiscent of an underground car park, a suitable backdrop for dodgy deals and gang fights, but for a show so dependent on striking visuals Lizzie Clachan's designs are very confused: With Burns' mustachio'd Duncan, Ben Lamb's bling-covered Malcolm and no shortage of Hawaiian shirts and horrific snakeskin boots, the aesthetic seems to be of a South American drug cartel, the favoured method of execution a plastic bag over the head. But this theme disappears from the battle scenes, where everyone turns up in military gear. This disconnect between elements is also apparent in the most crucial area, the signature mix of text and dance - the latter for the most part appearing in interludes separate from the spoken scenes, while the witches spinning lazy susans in the background of the feast scene is memorable for the wrong reasons.

Heffernan can of course be relied on to give a solid central performance, and his MacHeff is not a particularly villainous one - especially given the brutality he's surrounded by - but one caught up in events and misplaced enthusiasm. It's a shame he didn't get to play the role in a better production, but while, frustratingly, the seeds of something very creepy, atmospheric and original can often be seen, Cracknell and Guerin never pull it all together into something watchable. And while I often complain about unnecessary intervals, the Young Vic's trend in the opposite direction is starting to just look bullishly contrarian - sometimes two hours without a break really reaps rewards, but when it doesn't you end up all too aware of how uncomfortable the venue's benches are.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking until the 23rd of January at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes straight through.

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