6 January 2016

Macbeth at the Young Vic was a bold experiment that did not quite work

London theatre must be doing well as I have not had the opportunity to see The Scottish Play for many years.

The last time I remember seeing Macbeth was (at least) twenty years ago at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, though I did listen to the BBC Radio 3 version last year and I also saw the opera at Glyndebourne in 2010.

I was aware that the Young Vic were doing a modern take on Macbeth but I was a little weary and did not book it immediately. I loved some modern versions of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Lear, so this did appeal to me. The doubts came from my recent experience of the Young Vic were some productions, e.g. Streetcar named Desire, seemed unnecessarily complicated while others, e.g. Happy Days, were excellent.

In the end the deciding factor was work with a bit of help from fate. Work was not going well and rather than rant loudly to my boss I thought I would go to the theatre instead, something to calm me down. Macbeth was an option and there were a few single seats left for that evening's performance so I bought one, Downstairs D5 for £27.50.

The play did not start until 7:30pm so that have me plenty of time to walk down to Southwark from Kings Cross, have by usual Chinese style curry at Culture Grub and then get a pint of something brown and yet to drink at the Young Vic. You are allowed to take drinks in with you so I did, mostly because there were no seats in the bar and the theatre opened very early at 7pm.

The seat was a little to one side but I could see all the way down the funnel stage so I was OK. It did not hurt that the person in the seat in front of me did not turn up, the show was sold out but there were a few no-shows. I managed to get my usual shot from my seat despite the close attention of the staff eager to stop photography. The official photo above gives a better idea of what the stage looked like.

My first thought was of Richard III at the Old Vic which had a similar dark set with a series of doors along either side of the stage.

This was a strange Macbeth. It was a new version but I did not spot any changes in the text, nor would I expect to, until I checked afterwards for one specific thing (more on that later). I assume that several other pieces were cut out to make Macbeth more approachable and to make room for the dancing.

Yes, dancing. The first hint of this came when the three sisters first appeared and the prophecies came with modern dance moves, hands around the head and that sort of thing. They were also wearing body coloured body stockings which was another departure from the norm.

There was much more dancing later on especially in a ball scene that involved everybody and was quite fun. Less relevant were the duets between Macbeth's henchmen, their dancing was good but I just could not see the point of it.

The sound and lighting were far more successful in defining the mood and I loved the way that they varied, especially the volume with moments of loud music contrasting against soft speech.

The play is called Macbeth but I think that Lady Macbeth is the main character as she is the one who urges him on when the early doubts come and once that first fateful step is made he is doomed. This Lady Macbeth, Anna Maxwell Martin, was suitably scary not least because she looked like a primary school teacher. She led the rest of the cast well and they followed her admirably with no weaknesses and plenty of strengths.

The staging was light. All the doors were used frequently, the final section slid sideways a few times to show us other rooms and the central section lifted to become a table. What the staging did it did well enough but I missed what it did not do, e.g. there was no visual hint of Great Birnam Wood.

Surprisingly the ending fell a little flat. I heard other people say that on the way out so I checked the play text and saw that the closing speech had been chopped. I have no idea why and the absence of this epilogue made the ending rather abrupt.

My first reaction was, that despite the blunt ending, it was an exciting and thrilling experience, as you would expect Macbeth to be, and I was even considering going to see it again. On reflection, and I like to reflect on things, many of thrills came from the music and dancing and they were somewhat ephemeral, like cream cakes, and the sugar rush was short-lived. The core of the play was still one of Shakespeare's best plays but I was not convinced that the additional elements added anything to the tragedy.

Macbeth was fun, a lot of fun, and I am happy with that even if there was not enough in there to tempt me back for more.

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