Macbeth (Young Vic)

John Heffernan and Anna Maxwell Martin star in Carrie Cracknell’s take on the Scottish play

Clemmie Sveaas, Ana Beatriz Meireles, Jessie Oshodi and John Heffernan in Macbeth.
Clemmie Sveaas, Ana Beatriz Meireles, Jessie Oshodi and John Heffernan in Macbeth.
© Richard Hubert Smith

What if Duncan needed deposing? That’s the best innovation in Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin‘s dance-theatre Macbeth. Nick Burns plays the standing Scottish king as a Middle Eastern despot, slick as an oil spill in his grey suit and shades. He steps around the body bags being dragged out by his troops. We see his enemies electrocuted in holding cells; child-sized corpses wrapped in black plastic; protestors decapitated, their heads bagged in cellophane. Duncan smiles for the cameras.

Far from being an act of "vaulting ambition," driven by lust for personal power, Macbeth’s regicide becomes a moral act: a military coup in which a trusted lieutenant steps up for the sake of his nation. One of the finest young British actors around, John Heffernan is not a natural Macbeth: he’s too refined, too sensitive for the usual blunt, brutish murder. This makes sense of him. He quivers beforehand – "If we should fail?" – and quakes afterwards: "afraid to think what I have done." With Anna Maxwell Martin as his wife, more staunch support than wannabe queen, the Macbeths are good people drawn inexorably into horror.

Aren’t we all? Lizzie Clachan‘s stage is an urban underpass in false perspective: a tunnel that shrinks into darkness. At times, it splits to make a fork in the road, each route as shadowy as the other. This is a world in which there’s no doing good. Everything is tainted. "Hell is murky."

Had Cracknell and Guerin let that play out, morphed a decent Macbeth into a despot, they might have cracked something: a man murdering out of moral conviction. Instead, the moment the crown touches Heffernan’s head, he undergoes a complete personality transplant. MacHeff judders and jolts – orgasm or torture? – and emerges a new monster. With a wardrobe to match: no more white collars, rather snakeskin shoes and glossy black dress shirts. It’s like Trinny and Susannah’s instant autocrat look. He bumps off Banquo (Prasanna Puwanarajah) to protect his bloodline and we’re back at paranoia and power-play as per. He’s finally found hiding up in a hole: Scotland’s Saddam Hussein.

However, even that’s muddled in a production that aims to tap into the nightmare of Macbeth’s mental state. In Guerin’s contemporary choreography, dislocated bodies spasm like zombies, and the final surge against Macbeth (Sadler's Wells comes to Dunsinane) is narrated by Banquo’s broken corpse. The three witches creep and curl around Macbeth in body-stockings, like genderless mannekins, and Cracknell’s pared-back text makes much of male domination, in which women wish their sex away and pray to birth boys and not girls. Neil Austin‘s strip-lighting flickers and strobes, giving glimpses of ultraviolence, and the soundscape stings like tinnitus.

It sounds great, but it’s not. It’s incoherent and inert, pulling every which way at once and striving so hard to unnerve that it trips into absurdity. The Macduff kids are dressed as ghosts, playing blind man’s buff with mum, when death arrives, and there’s a banality to Clachan’s Blackwall tunnel design. Dance sections only stall the momentum that makes Macbeth so thrilling a watch, and Guerin’s choreography hasn’t much content or potency. There’s something interesting in channel-hopping between drama and dance, words and bodies, but Cracknell and Guerin still haven’t cracked it. Not even close.

Macbeth runs at the Young Vic until 23rd January 2016.