Writer: William Shakespeare
Directors: Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Following their highly regarded collaboration on Medea at the National Theatre, Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin create a new version of Shakespeare’s supernatural tragedy. This co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Young Vic and HOME takes a similarly bold approach, editing William Shakespeare’s text and adding contemporary choreography and movement by Australian choreographer/director Lucy Guerin to complete and augment the narrative in a powerfully modern way.
Macbeth’s production design is striking. Lizzie Clachan’s set is a flexible masterpiece of starkly austere beauty. All-encompassing – with a sloping forced perspective and powerfully lit by Neil Austin – it creates an oppressive, disorienting dystopian world at a time of unravelling certainty – part-bunker, part-brutalist palace, part-no place. Add to this David McSeveney’s exquisitely-nuanced sound design, the (occasionally explosive) music soundtrack by Clark and Merle Hensel’s finely chosen costumes – from flesh-toned body separates to military fatigues to elegant modern tailoring – and this is a production that remains visually stunning and surprising throughout this two-hour show.
Shakespeare’s narrative and text is stripped back and simplified a little – which may annoy purists – but the narrative and the best of the language remains intact. Macbeth is still a basically decent man whose ambitions are awakened and fuelled by a seemingly fulfilled prophesy (that he will become king), who is driven to act boldly by his more blatantly ambitious wife, unleashing a cycle of paranoia, fear, murder and madness as the pair first act to make the prophesy come true then – increasingly desperately – attempt to prevent subsequent prophecies from coming to pass. With the show’s modern military dressing – biohazard fatigues, body bags, knives, plastic bag suffocations and grim executions – this production seems darkly relevant and unsettlingly familiar.
John Heffernan’s Macbeth is actually rather likeable. Handsome, fragile and immediately wracked with guilt and fear, his emotional vulnerability and revulsion at his own capacity for horrific acts connects in a very human way. Anna Maxwell Martin as Lady Macbeth is an icier character; she famously seeks to ‘unsex’ herself so she can provide the steel for her husband’s backbone. Her initial coolness and growing sense of suppressed panic – and the fact that she seems incredibly alone but for her husband – gives her a hypnotic presence within the action: central and yet chillingly isolated.
The rest of the cast offer strong and distinctive performances. Nicholas Burns does a fine job of creating two distinct characters: confident and business-like as the doomed king Duncan and oddly, modernly, ineffectual as Macduff. Cassie Layton also seamlessly doubles Lennox and Lady Macduff. Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Banquo is a warm beacon of relatable humanity as man and ghost. The witches (Ana Beatriz Meireles, Clemmie Sveaas, Jessie Oshodi) – are a delight. They remain a presence throughout much of the action, bleeding in and out of the real and imagined world, their distinctive presence and movement providing a silent commentary on Macbeth’s short reign of incremental fear and instability. In addition to the Weird Sisters, the powerful dance sections are powered by Ira Mandela Siobhan and Thomasin Gülgeç – both strong dancer-actors, and at times, the full cast.
Shakespeare purists may well have issues with this production. It’s not a mediaeval highland celebration of kingship, killing and the supernatural. But it is a completely valid and excitingly modern and authentic telling of the tale, with great performances, fantastically high production values and design, and some really thrilling moments of visual pleasure, horror and emotion.
Dance is a powerful means of conveying narrative, drama and emotion without words. Threading this form through Shakespearean drama in a significant and fully integrated way makes for powerfully modern theatre with real visual power that enhances rather than distracts from the text.
Dark, disturbing and contemporary, this is a compelling Macbeth with a strong visual and emotional kick.
Runs until 6 February 2016 | Photo:Richard Hubert Smith