Writer: William Shakespeare
Directors: Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Superstition tells us never to speak the name of this play by William Shakespeare inside a theatre, a rule that could well be extended to warn against ever performing it in The Cut, London SE1. Memories of the infamous 1980 production starring Peter O’Toole at the Old Vic live long. Although no-one could accuse this revival just across the road of being inept, it is still only partially successful.
Urban dance routines, pounding music and flickering lights stylise the play’s violence and accentuate its supernatural elements. Incidents typical of modern conflicts are suggested clearly, but the overall effect is a strange detachment of deeds from words which dampens the fiery passions at the play’s heart. Jamie Lloyd’s 2013 London production was mud-splattered and red-blooded and, in comparison, this version is pristine and anaemic.
The production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and choreographer Lucy Guerin, is performed in modern dress and has no hint of being set in Scotland. Lizzie Clachan’s stage design has the look of an empty underground car park. An exaggerated perspective gives the impression of the grey concrete walls extending back like a long corridor into oblivion. Harsh lighting (designer Neil Austin) casts long and threatening shadows.
Visually, much of this is stunning. However, the appearance, combined with Guerin’s choreographed movement, represents stylising at the expense of substance. Scenes such as the slaughter of MacDuff’s family lose much of their horrific impact when enacted as dances. In this play, Shakespeare was chiefly concerned with the corrosive nature of unbridled ambition and the hollowness of ill-gained victory, themes that struggle to shine through here in the haze of imagery.
Even when surrounded by mayhem, John Hefferman is a striking Macbeth, blinded by ambition and pushed along by his ruthless wife as he murders his way to the Scottish throne. He shows all the doubts brought about by his tenuous grip on power and all the torment of facing up to his inner demons. His clear and measured delivery confirms his potential to become one of the great Shakespeareans.
Anna Maxwell Martin makes Lady Macbeth resemble a social climbing cocktail party hostess, urging her husband to fork out for a grander house rather than coaxing him into committing regicide. The production does not serve this pivotal character well, preferring to show her being laid to rest in her grave over and over again rather than to explore her motives and her anguish.
Cutting the play to just two hours, without an interval, the production moves with a strong sense of urgency. Cracknell and Guerin deserve credit for their bold if eccentric approach, but their end product is in many ways disappointing. Happily, Hefferman’s performance does not feature among the disappointments.
Runs until 23 January 2016 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith