Macbeth, Young Vic, London — ‘Bold, visceral’

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Where is Macbeth’s Scotland? The play’s setting has morphed to meet the concerns of the time in which each version is staged. In the Young Vic’s chilling, pared-down revival, co-directed by Carrie Cracknell and choreographer Lucy Guerin, the setting is very much the disturbed psychological terrain of Macbeth.

The nascent tyrant is “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d” from the outset on Lizzie Clachan’s shape-shifting set, which glides about to produce nightmarish endless tunnels and nasty little chambers. It’s the bunker in which this Macbeth will end up, but it also reflects the prison of his mind.

John Heffernan’s modern-day soldier (a luminously intelligent performance) is clearly suffering from PTSD. Unable to distinguish hallucination from reality (this works powerfully in the dagger scene), he gradually divides from himself, descending into paranoia and, finally, isolated numbness. The leader he deposes here is no gentle king, but a smoothly dressed despot; the leader who replaces him seems all bluster. Macbeth’s reign appears to be just one bloody episode in a grisly, muddled cycle of war. Cracknell and Guerin infuse the drama with dance to create this disjointed world: the witches are sinister, moving mannequins, whose limbs fidget and twist like dying bodies.

It’s grim, it’s all-too topical, and, accompanied by an ominous electronic score (Clark and David McSeveney), it is creepily atmospheric. So far, so good. But it suffers badly from overkill. The dance and drama often don’t mesh satisfactorily and there are so many ideas jostling for attention that they distract from the plot. Oddly, you lose the narrative clarity and drive of this most driven of plays. The significance and pathos of the slaughter of Macduff’s family, for instance, are lost in a game of hide and seek with the children dressed as sinister ghosts.

Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth seems, like her husband, disturbed by events prior to the action (perhaps the loss of a child): she’s strangely withdrawn, possibly depressed, and rattles out her speeches as if trying to disappear as she says them. Interesting, but you lose a lot of what she says. The more peripheral characters have little definition until they become, in the final, dance-driven section, just voices in Macbeth’s guilt-addled head. This makes sense, in the context, but it also undermines their role in the drama.

It’s a bold, visceral and topical approach. But an excess of innovations ends up blunting its potential and the ever-relevant power of Shakespeare’s drama.

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