I've come to the conclusion that when the creative team behind the Young Vic’s Macbeth were coming up with their concept for the show they went to see the Almeida’s Bakkhai. ‘This is a great idea,’ they clearly thought. ‘Take a classic text, cast two fantastic actors in the lead roles and then bury their excellent performances under a tonne of technically impressive but extraneous bullshit that adds nothing!’ Whereas Bakkhai had its endless songs about nets, though, Macbeth has something far worse: modern dance.
Now look. I don’t object to modern dance, or any kind of dance, in principle. Quite the opposite. What I do object to is it being crowbarred into a production to which it adds nothing. There’s no attempt in this production to use the dance to tell the story, which would've been interesting, and only the most basic attempt to use it to add to character development. Instead, you have lengthy dance routines just forced into, or in between, scenes of dialogue which serve only to interrupt the action and break the flow of the story.
And, whilst most of them are at least aesthetically pleasing (and all are done really well by the small cast), some of them are straight up ridiculous. The most bizarre example is the transformation of Macduff’s soon-to-be-murdered son into two dancers with sheets draped over their heads, skipping. You could actually feel the audience thinking ‘what the fuck?’ and in many cases hear them quietly giggling. For such an emotive scene, with fairly large implications for the rest of the story, it’s a genuinely unfathomable, typically unnecessary, stylistic flourish.
The other thing that pissed me off the most with the production is some of the liberties taken with the text. Whilst I wholeheartedly and vigorously applaud the decision to cut the ever tedious, never funny porter scene, some of the other changes are just plain odd. The most jarring example is having the ghost of Banquo return in the final scenes to deliver big chunks of dialogue. I think I understand what we’re meant to think about this (that it’s further evidence of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s respective declines into madness) but it just doesn't work in practice. Especially when a lot of this dialogue is delivered in the style of a grime MC. I also take issue with some of the updates to certain words (which in a lot of cases make sense) but leaving others unscathed. I'm 100% certain that there are more confusing words in the text than ‘hilt’ (which becomes ‘handle’) for example.
The cumulative effect of the unnecessary dancing, text fuckery and some not-as-clever-as-it-thinks-it-is design is a production where the creative vision takes primacy over the play itself. Which, for me, breaks rule one of theatre. The play should always be king.
It’s a shame because, exactly as with Bakkhai, strip away the nonsense and there’s some top class acting struggling for attention underneath. The reliably fantastic John Herffernan is, reliably, fantastic in the title role. His verse speaking is clear and straightforward whilst his characterisation of Macbeth is pleasingly nihilistic, brutal and understated. He is excellently supported by Anna Maxwell Martin as a ferociously unsympathetic, properly villainous Lady Macbeth. Her verse speaking is, with a couple of rushed lines excepted, also very clear and very modern in a non-arsey way. Both performances are incredibly powerful; I would happily watch them again in a better production. Credit also to Prasanna Puwanarajah who is a strong, ballsy and altogether cooler than usual Banquo, even if he does have far too many lines.
It’s the performances that redeem this production in the end, but it’s still not one I’d enthusiastically urge you to see. Worth a look if you’re a Heffer-fan with deep pockets and nothing better to do this week, or enjoy unnecessary modern dance (or skipping ghosts). Otherwise save your money.
Macbeth is at the Young Vic until Saturday (23rd January).