The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th January, 2016
Directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin, this co-production with the Young Vic and HOME comes to Birmingham for a sell-out week – the place is packed with school parties, which is always good to see. Youngsters will find much appealing: the driving score by Clark, the stylish presentation, the violence (there are lots of plastic bags going over heads – this is a modern-day setting, that brought to mind at first the National Theatre’s recent Othello).
There are flashes, not only of violence, but of brilliance. Little moments that reveal character in new ways: King Duncan’s photo-opportunities with his newly-promoted men; Fleance tearing his gaze from his hand-held game, thrilled to be offered his dad’s sword… There should be more of this kind of thing.
When your set dominates the production, more overbearing than any of the tyranny displayed by the characters, there is a problem. Lizzie Clachan gives us a kind of subway tunnel-cum-locker room, with exaggerated perspective. This can make some of the action seem remote. It’s an oppressive setting – which, is the point, I suppose, representing Scotland under tyranny. Like Macbeth, we feel cabin’d, cribb’d, and confin’d by its limitations. It’s also monochromatic and very dark. Neil Austin’s lighting helps, for the most part, but like Lady Macbeth’s nightmare, this hell is murky. Not quite fifty, but many shades of grey. The odd notes of pale pink, like glimpses of skin between armour, make me queasy. It makes for a cold, distant nightmare that also manages to be claustrophobic.
It’s not a new idea to have the three witches as puppet-masters, engineering events. Here they are also stage crew, shifting corpses between scenes. How do you suggest the supernatural in a modern setting? Here the witches use movement, twitchy, stilted choreography that shows us they are ‘other’. They snap and pop like a glitchy breakdance video, and it wears thin before very long. It doesn’t help that it looks like they forgot their PE kits and have been forced to perform in their underwear. I think stillness and slowness might be more eerie than these twitchy, glitchy witches, who become a bit too ‘performing arts’ for my taste. Instead of the comic relief of the porter’s speech (this is a humourless production) we get a jerky, urban pas de deux. No, thank you.
Anna Maxwell Martin gives an unusual reading of Lady Macbeth; changing pace and stressing words at odds with meaning, she is more William Shatner than William Shakespeare. In the title role, John Heffernan is the show’s saving grace. He masters the verse, bringing heat and passion to this cold, colourless nightmare. The ‘Is this a dagger’ scene crystallises all that is good in this production: a strong actor, breathing life into the text, while the production design allows his shadow to stalk along the walls.
It’s not enough to keep me enthused. I find I don’t really care, for Macbeth’s downfall or for Malcolm’s succession in a show that seems more distant and remote to me than a Scottish referendum.