Macbeth, Young Vic Theatre

Though drastic re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays can show the contemporary relevance of his workgroups the use of a clear, justifiable concept, randomly slapping on cool ideas has the opposite effect. Alienating and confusing, the audience can go away with no more understanding of the story than they came in with, and the director’s decisions look masturbatory and self-indulgent. If a new perspective or insight isn’t provided on a play that the audience is likely to already know or have seen, then there is absolutely no point to adding a concept at all. Such is the case with Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s Macbeth. With a text cut to ribbons, lengthy contemporary dance sequences inserted, generically quirky witches and inexplicable doubling, this production is a fine example of how contemporary Shakespeare concepts for the sake of edginess fails to communicate anything to the audience.

An optical illusion of a set by Lizzie Clachan and Neil Austin’s lighting ensures every moment could make a stunning photograph with stark shadows and forced perspective. This isn’t an art exhibition, though. The cold, industrial feel supports the mood of the play but lacks the sumptuousness that the Macbeths kill for. The rarely changing set doesn’t delineate space or place well, merging this world with the next. In some scenes this works, but it’s hard to follow where the characters are, particularly with the liberal cuts to the text. A home or a Heath? Scotland or England? Bedroom or banquet? It’s easy to lose track, even knowing the play well.

The witches, wearing beige dance wear, twitch and spasm around the space, sometimes with other characters joining in to create a repetitive, robotic movement machine. Why? I genuinely don’t know. There’s a hint of a lack of self-control but the repetition counters that effect. They also double for the child characters, which causes them to lose their power and inhuman-ness. Their movement sequences are entirely too long and lack any support for the narrative, though they are distinct from the other characters.

Fortunately, some of the performances are quite good. John Heffernan as Macbeth is a flawed man we see unravel, though this process is forced due to the cuts in the first half of the play. Anna Maxwell Martin on the other hand is rushed and deadpan, completely disregarding the verse and therefore flattening it. Prasanna Puwanarajah is a good Banquo, though the choice to have his ghost narrate the “out, damn spot” monologue was completely ineffective and nonsensical. Despite a disempowerment of the smaller roles due to the textual edits, the rest of the cast perform with energy and commitment.

There is a litany of further poor choices that show a value of style over substance in this production, and despite the directors’ need for weirdness, the whole thing comes across as generic and pointless. The stylised, lengthy movement sequences make no comment on the world of the play or its inhabitants, and with so much of the text removed, this Macbeth is very much “a tale…full of sound a fury, signifying nothing”.

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Song from Far Away, Young Vic Theatre

Willem is 34. He moved from Amsterdam to New York City 12 years ago. After an inconveniently timed phone call from his mother on a cold New York morning, he goes home for his younger brother Pauli’s funeral. He is greeted by his father’s disappointment, his sister’s lectures and the disorientation of not knowing where “home” is anymore. Much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.

I’m 33 years old. Eleven years ago, I moved to the UK from New York City. I use the term “home” fluidly because I don’t know where that place is anymore. So far I haven’t had to suddenly return for a family funeral, but that time will come. I know too well that disarming, unnamed feeling of simultaneous comfort and sadness from remembered places and people, those that have stayed the same and those have changed or disappeared altogether. There are many things that I miss, but much that reinforces my choice not just to leave, but to stay away.

I should have been in tears by the end of Song from Far Away, especially as I saw the 11 September performance, a day indelibly impressed on my memory with an anniversary no easier to bear with each passing year. Willem unexpectedly lost his little brother to an undiagnosed heart condition; I fortunately lost no one in 9/11. I was moved at times, by Simon Stephens’ delicate language, Mark Eizel’s folksy travelling tunes, and Eelco Smits’ honest portrayal of Willem’s understated struggles. Frustratingly, I never received the cathartic cry I sought from this production though, and I should have, considering how keenly I relate to Willem.

The performance and design elements are subtly beautiful, but the production is skeletal. The changing light and shadows of time passing have more connection to the present than the character does, who is more at home in transit than in the arrival at a place. The production seems to want to be minimalist in the extreme in order to draw attention to Willem’s displacement in the world, but in doing so creates an ethereal anti-theatre that doesn’t manage to come close to the audience’s heartstrings. Willem’s extended monologue in the form of letters to Pauli opens his heart to us as he (literally) bares all, but his world is so insular that we are excluded. We can witness, but not engage.

Stephens’ script sounds like it would read better on the page than performed as a theatre piece, at least with Ivo van Hove’s chosen directorial concept. The language is undeniably beautiful and human, and creates a wonderful character, but the production concept distances and isolates him from us, reinforced in the final moments of the play. A Song from Far Away is just that – too distant to hear the details of a faintly mourning cry on cold winter’s day in New York City. We want to comfort the singer, but he is moving further out of our grasp the longer we listen.

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