Last night, I watched the last performance of the Macbeth at The Young Vic. I must admit, I went in with a certain sense of trepidation, following an earlier visit at the beginning of the run inducing a panic attack, as well as leaving me shaking and unable to speak for 20 minutes after the performance ended, much to the consternation of the friend I went with. That reaction was not to say I hated the production even then though. No, I rationalised it in discussion on the way home as being due to the incredibly powerful performances that were presented on the stage before me. I’m just quite sensitive, and these things affect me quite strongly (I stammered and shook for 2 days after seeing a production of Sarah Kane’s ‘Blasted’ at The Other Room in Cardiff, but that’s another story). As I write this, the muscles in my neck, shoulders and around my left knee are in spasm from the tension I was holding myself in for the duration of the play. It didn’t help that it was absolutely FREEZING in the auditorium, and despite wearing a support glove and wooden gloves the CRPS in my hand flared up to the point where it had contracted itself into a fist and I couldn’t move t for the life of me. It was weird because I could literally feel all of the tendons pulling and tightening. As a result, rather than clapping like a normal person at the end I had to resort to slapping my left hand against my collar bone/shoulder like some sort of demented seal or something. I’ll be honest, it was SO worth the pain though.
The set was a long black tunnel, something that seemed slightly sinister before the performance had even begun. Off that then came a series of doors, with a brilliant sliding panel (I’m not sure of what else to call it) at the back, which acted as torture chamber to the Thane of Cordor and method of transportation of props such as ‘bodies’ wrapped in plastic off the stage. That was eerie as anything, watching the three witches hauling them on before sitting on the bodies as they were slid from the stage… There was also a large hydraulic platform which acted as a table, rising from the floor when required, and a trap door towards the back of the stage through which Macbeth was dragged by Macduff towards the end of the play. I really liked the fact that the set was such a blank canvas; you don’t know what could happen within it because of the amount of opportunities it presents.
I also liked the majority of the modern-style costume choices (with the exception of Malcolm’s hideous patterned shirt and too short pinstripe trousers, and the male dancers’ bizarre 80s patterned outfits that clashed so much). Anna Maxwell Martin’s costumes as Lady Macbeth were really lovely- I’m horribly jealous of her figure, and her ability to pull off a dress that looked like a sort of mesh had been sewn as a skirt around a black leotard (this description doesn’t do it justice, it looked amazing on her) as well as pinstripe catsuits! My new aim is to try and look as good as that. The army uniforms appeared similar to modern uniforms worn by soldiers, although some of them appeared to have a kind of waxy/plastic-y coating which I didn’t quite get. The choice to have Macbeth in a black suit at points worked well, just because John Heffernan is a very handsome man and pulled them off wonderfully (I adore him, he’s fantastic). The King of Scotland seemed defined by a burgundy suit and overly large sunglasses, which I suppose seemed to fit with a sort of modern ‘celebrity’ look- he also smoked a cigarette pretty much the entire time he was on stage. I wasn’t a fan of the ensemble put together for Lady Macduff which is odd considering I normally do like leopard print jackets. The witches (who were played by dancers) wore variations of white and skin tone leotards which seemed appropriate and not odd, although I couldn’t work out what the rationale behind it would be, besides freedom of movement. Fair play to the wonderful witch who actually cut her knee during the end of the performance and continued, getting bloody streaks over the rest of her costume. That’s going to be interesting to get off, blood is a nightmare (speaking as a former dancer with experience)!
Speaking of the dancing, I adored it. The first time I saw the play I thought it was a bit peculiar but could see what they were trying to portray (or at least what I think it was supposed to signify). The movements of the three witches were generally disjointed, consisting of movements at odd angles which I assumed was to represent their nature as unnatural beings; I thought they were fantastic. Movement seemed to be a huge part of their role, as they doubled as various other parts; Banquo’s son, Lady Macduff’s nanny and children (more on this later, I LOVED it) as well as bodies at the party hosted by Macbeth and waiters at the meal (again more on this later). They worked bloody hard and were fantastic both times I saw it. The two male dancers were also brilliant, and seemed to arrive at points of turmoil in both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s minds; the rapid, disjointed movements that they made seemed to represent the racing of their minds as they both tipped towards insanity following the murder of the King. There was a wonderful scene with Lady Macbeth being unable to sleep, the dancers in the background following her as she paced around the stage, before she fell backwards to be caught by one of the male dancers and the whole cycle started again. The dancer inside of me genuinely could have cried at the brilliance of it; I saw a lot of reviews that didn’t seem to ‘get’ it, and obviously I don’t know what the intention of the director was, but I feel like it made sense. For example, the male dancers remained the longest after the party scene, running around crazily on the stage. Directly after this was the scene where Macbeth killed the King. They also were on stage after the murder had been committed and Macbeth started to unravel. It just felt like I was watching his mind fall to pieces in front of my very eyes as they danced. The male dancers also doubled as other parts; they were also bodies at the party, as well as being the ones to kill Banquo. They also probably did other things that I can’t think of off the top of my head. They were great. I would absolutely LOVE to get my hand on the book for this adaptation, just so I can look at the stage directions!
RIGHT, onto the wonderful actors. What can I say about John Heffernan. I’ve adored him since I first saw him backlit in a doorway of the Swan Theatre in Stratford. That was in Oppenheimer, which I loved with a burning passion (it made me feel intelligent and the performances were flawless). I knew he’d make a wonderful Macbeth as soon as I heard about it (when my delightful best friend and I danced around the table at 8 in the morning, making ourselves late for work as we booked tickets!). I was proved 100% correct. Watching him is like having a masterclass in acting; I genuinely don’t have anything remotely negative to say, other than he scared the shit out of me at the beginning. I have a fear of being suffocated and the play features a lot of characters being suffocated with a bag over their heads. Absolutely horrific. The power and the intensity behind the actions though was amazing. Considering he’s not a *huge* guy, he is able to make himself seem really physically threatening, and it’s something that almost feels palpable. I had goosebumps the entire time (as well as cringing down in my seat which was, awkwardly, right in the front row. I thought I’d be a goner for sure). On the flip side, he is also wonderful at making himself seem vulnerable; through his actions I felt like I genuinely was seeing a person lose their mind before me, rather than watching an actor on a stage. He has the most remarkable ability to use his eyes too which I LOVE; I am absolutely fascinated by people’s eyes. At one point, Macbeth is sat at the side of the stage against the wall with Banquo’s commentary running in his head (BRILLIANT) and his eyes just looked dead. It was amazingly powerful, this completely blank stare into space, which I felt like I could identify with having experienced severe anxiety issues in the past, as he stared into space. I don’t really know what more I can say about his performance without sounding either like I’m raving or like I’m being terribly false, but I genuinely did adore it. Heff is right up there with my favourite actors of all time; not many other people have given me such wonderfully intense reactions to their work.
Anna Maxwell Martin makes a delightfully evil Lady Macbeth. Like John, she has amazing eyes which you could see harden as soon as she gets the information that her husband could be King… I can’t properly explain how much I loved her portrayal because it was just everything; you could see her manipulation of Macbeth happening right in front of you. Everything she did was fantastic; the hard glint was still there in the party for example, the smile not quite meeting the eyes and tiny little things like that which made it for me. Her disgust at her husband’s instability just made her eventual crumbling even more interesting to watch, as she talked her way through prior lines of the play, chastising her absent husband. It seemed to me that the tone of voice she was using also changed here; she went from being incredibly strong and dominating, to being a very vulnerable creature that was being preyed on by her thoughts. Just wonderful. The trust that she must have had in the male dancer catching her as she fell backwards too… I winced every single time! Also noticed a rather large bruise on her knee when the character faints; that must have been pretty painful! Absolutely fantastic actress, and the chemistry between herself and John was obvious- I think they made the perfect couple, to be honest I can’t really imagine anyone else being forceful enough to convey how nasty a character she is when playing alongside him!
Prasanna made a magnificent Banquo, another character who I can’t imagine being played by anyone else. Absolutely wonderful, and terribly creepy as the ghost that came back to haunt Macbeth with his eerie commentary. The staging of that was interesting; at the beginning of the play Macbeth and Banquo sat side by side against the wall following their win. Banquo was then sat in the same position as a ghost, but this time Macbeth was sat opposite rather than beside him as he lost his mind. I don’t really know what bits to pick out about his performance either because I loved everything he did too. The fear that he would be the next to die due to Macbeth’s desire to be King seemed to play itself out across his face in the scene that they shared; this was another moment where friendly smiles didn’t quite meet their eyes. Banquo’s murder was one of the most horrible things to watch- I had completely forgotten about the cracking of the whips and jumped out of my seat every time it happened. Absolutely horrible. He’s someone that I will be keeping an eye out for in future because he was just bloody brilliant, I don’t know what else to say.
What to say about everyone else, other than they were fab. I’m afraid I don’t have my programme on me so I’m going to have to refer to them by character name… I’m on a train, sorry! Anyway, I really liked Malcom, damn what an attractive man. He was. so good (apart from that godawful outfit). There was a lot of passion there. The King/Macduff was really good too, his fight with Macbeth at the end was brilliant. The only thing was, when there were marching he looked a bit like a wardrobe… He was not so good as the others at that, and I mean it in the most affectionate of ways because I thought he was fantastic. It was great that there was such a large definition between the two characters body language-wise as well as costume-wise.
There wasn’t really enough of Lady Macduff for me to form much of an opinion, although I thought she played what little she had well. I thought the scene where she was playing with her children was particularly clever. She played hide and seek with her ‘children’ who were dressed in sheets, imitating very childlike ghost costumes- in conversation with my lovely friend Claire walking back to Victoria after the show, we came to the agreement that it was supposed to be how the children were already dead (due to Macbeth’s plan to kill them) and so they were essentially living ghosts at that point (I don’t know if that makes any sense but I’m going to go with it) and that the roughness of the costumes symbolised their childishness and how they wouldn’t grow up. Lady Macduff being blindfolded as her children were killed, and therefore her still looking for them, she wasn’t given the opportunity to fight to save her family because she didn’t see symbolised how she hadn’t seen their deaths coming until Macbeth was upon her.
So, to summarise, I loved this production so much. It was insanely clever, incredibly acted and touched me deeply. As much as I adore theatre, I haven’t seen that many shows that have made me respond in the way that I did to this.