Macbeth, A HOME, Young Vic and Birmingham Repertory Theatre co-production in association with Lucy Guerin Inc., HOME, February 2-6
By the time Macbeth (John Heffernan) learns that his wife has died, he is already slumped against the wall. The rest of the cast stand in the shadows upstage, panting after a frenetic sequence of hypnotic and disturbing ensemble movement (Lady Macbeth herself, obscured between the other bodies, falls down and is pulled back to her feet, again and again, before quietly vanishing offstage). His first response, “she should have died hereafter,” is delivered deadpan, stripped of any remorse or guilt. Macbeth, in this production, doesn’t seem too concerned with the problem of free will: the Weird Sisters’ prophecy sets off a chain of events barrelling uncontrollably from one murder to the next. Where many readings of the play invite us to choose either Macbeth or his wife as the seat of murderous ambition, this production instead gives us a fatalistic interpretation, taking responsibility away from the characters and investing it in a narrative which seems to drive itself forward of its own accord.
In part, this fatalism comes from the pacing of the production. At just over two hours, and with significant portions of time devoted to choreography rather than dialogue, the production necessarily raced through the play’s major events. This doesn’t leave much room for character development; we don’t have time to process Macbeth’s decision to kill the King, for example, but neither does Macbeth.
What it does create room for, however, are extraordinary dance pieces performed by the three Weird Sisters and the two murderers to a soundtrack of dark and disjointed electronica. For the male dancers, these come from somewhere between Stomp and classical ballet, all soaring leaps and aggression. The Weird Sisters are the most successful at integrating choreography with speech, their jerky, angular movement managing to be somehow both mechanical and deeply biological. Like their costumes, bound up in a cacophony of skin-coloured ballet leotards and compression bandaging, their movements gesture towards the limits of the human body and the treacherous line between the human and the supernatural.
The Weird Sisters cross this line insistently and repeatedly. They are a near-constant presence on stage, sometimes as onlookers, sometimes as ghostly stagehands; at one point, one of them finds her feet shoved into combat boots, a PlayStation controller in her hand, and becomes Banquo’s teenage son Fleance. If the production plays fast and loose with the distribution of lines and stage time, it is largely to interesting and provocative effect. Banquo’s ghost, corporeal and disgusting, insists on sticking around, and takes over the role of the doctor as the foil to Lady Macbeth’s descent towards madness in her final scene.
Ghosts and Weird Sisters who insist on hanging out with the living form just one element in the astonishing design of this production. It is tactile in a way that the theatre frequently overlooks, the stark and grubby grey set forming a backdrop to rustling plastics, cold acrylic furniture, velvet, leather, and plenty of blood. Events unfold inside a retro-futuristic, possibly dystopian interior, beginning in military uniform as soldiers cover the stage with plastic-wrapped corpses. The military theme, though, quickly recedes as events become more domestic, even bourgeois – when the Macbeths welcome the king and his entourage to their home, the party becomes a loud all-night rave, with Duncan self-consciously eyeing up Lady Macbeth’s arse at every opportunity. It’s hard to ignore a certain visual affinity with Red Dwarf: these domestic scenes are costumed in jarringly confusing 80s and 90s fashion, complete with crocodile loafers, turtlenecks, and polyester bomber jackets.
In a modernised setting like this, it’s hard to make sure all of the lines still make sense – why is Banquo riding out on horseback in a world that has cars? Indeed, where this production falls down is when actors give the impression, for one reason or another, that they’re delivering the words because it’s Shakespeare and not because they actually mean anything. Nicholas Burns (best know from mid-noughties TV comedy Nathan Barley), as Duncan and Macduff, delivers his lines with all the subtlety and intricacy of a straight-faced Captain Flashheart. Anna Maxwell Martin as Lady Macbeth stands out with a masterful control of the language, alternately savouring the syllables as a schemer and racing inaudibly through the words of her husband’s letter as a bored and disdainful wife. She’s an icy bitch in a jumpsuit, her delivery of the lines revealing her to be already slightly mad, or at least out of sync with the mediocrity of the men around her.
There are spectacular elements of this production, with the choreography in particular contributing something genuinely new and exciting to one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. But the brilliance of these elements makes the delivery of the words themselves feel flat and unloved in contrast. There is plenty left to be challenged by within the texts of the plays, even after 400 years; innovation isn’t limited to the bits that we stick on around the edges. As other reviews have noted, this is a production gloriously full of sound and fury – but, a lot of the time, ultimately signifying nothing.