Written by Memoonah Hussain
Upon hearing DanceXchange Present Macbeth, I was consumed with fascination about how dance would be used to convey such as a dark and tragic Shakespearian story. My introduction to dance conveying stories stemmed from watching Matthew Bourne’s Edwards Scissorhands. I had never watched anything of this kind before but the power and beauty of dance in portraying and conveying the emotions and story still strikes me three years on. The clean lines, perfect time, costumes, facial expression, dance moves, music, props, just everything was magnificent and heart-stopping.
So, I obviously had very high expectations for Mark Bruce’s portrayal of Macbeth which sold itself as a dance theatre production that realises “a beautifully harrowing vision of an internal wasteland formed from a pursuit of power through ruthless means”. But boy was this far from the truth. It was more like a ‘restricted, weird, ugly, unharrowing eyesore of an external wasteland formed by a limited number of dance moves’. Bruce actively disagreed with me when I asked him why the number of dance moves was limited but if you repeat around ten dance moves in every dance, as far as I am aware, that entails a limited number of dance moves.
The dance organisation calls itself ‘DanceXchange’ but ‘WalkXchange’ would be much better suited. More than three quarters of the entire ‘dance’ was spent walking. When the crown was placed on Macbeth’s head, the routine was walked. When the two guards outside of the King’s bedroom were drugged, that was walked. When Lady Macbeth considering killing the King after drugging the guards, it was walked. I had the opportunity to ask Bruce why he chose not to have his dancers dance in these moments as they had such great potential to be portrayed through dance. He replied saying that he wanted to be economical in how much dance he used. He said that many performances overuse dance and overperform, so he wanted to be more sparing in his use of dance. However, on one hand you have Emirates’ economy class which includes somewhat spacious seats, access to movies and TV and food and on the other you have EasyJet which provides you with nothing other than cramped seats. This production was much more EasyJet than Emirates. I have no problem with being economical but there is something called being too economical and spending much of the time walking around the stage when you’re called ‘DanceXchange’ certainly calls Bruce’s concept of being economical into question.
In terms of the actual choreography and dancing itself, it was very disappointing. During the first ‘fight’ scene, the men were leaping and twirling around. It looked more like a child pretending to be a fairy then a sword fight. We were also treated to a dance number with the three witches who, like all of the female dancers, wore very tight skirts that drastically limited the range of movement in their legs. I was reminded of a school dance showcase rather than a professional dance because of the timing issues. I feel that the tight skirts may have contributed to this as the majority of the hand and arm lines were clean.
There were also random dances between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth which contained the same leaps and twirls as the fight scene. My assumption was that these dances were supposed to be sensual but what with these two main characters spending a lot of time staring down the audience, it was more weird than sensual. There were also a number of scenes without context. For example, there is a scene of Macbeth dancing while there are people dining behind him and there were intense crescendos of a violin. No reason was given for as to why this was including. It did not add to the story, it merely made it much more confusing.
For some, the outfit choices may have seemed brave for modern clothing was used, but they left me feeling confused. The men were dressed in what seemed like very poor-quality suits while the three witches weren’t even dressed as witched. They had tight fake leather skirts, chockers, and leather buckled ankle boots. Coupled with an inadequate attempt at anti-dancing, the witches looked like three drunk girls on a night out at a club.
The performance did contain the cliché blood, thunder claps and lightning, and screams. During the second half, there is another repetitive weird dance between Macbeth and his wife. During the dance, Macbeth leaves before returning with blood covering his hands and he is holding knives. Having studied Macbeth previously, it made sense to assume he killed the King but as it wasn’t shown, those unfamiliar with the play wouldn’t have known. Lady Macbeth soon leaves before returning with blood on her hands. This occurs to the backdrop of some very weird music. It may have been Bruce’s attempt to show the characters “goaded by the whispers of demons” but it was strikingly similar to the eerie Church music in The Da Vinci Code but by layering weird sounds like those of a groan tube, consequently it make the whole affair even weirder. Bruce did say that he the music was used to show redemption, but I do believe he said that because he was feed that when questioned by an audience member.
Again, due to Bruce’s wish to be economical, there was no dancing to show the anguish and horror at the King’s murder. The scene purely consisted of the Queen screaming, the other performers walking up to the King or to the other side of the stage before Macbeth walks up to the two guards drugged by Lady Macbeth and brutally stabs them. Amazingly, Bruce inserts a dance to a scene of his own creation immediately after Queen places flowers by her dead husband. The Queen walks forward with her out to the sides and her arms drooping down, perhaps in attempt to mimic the image of Jesus on the cross. She then dances to the creepy Church music. Again, there is more staring at the audience as her facial expression is devoid of any emotion. Given the lacklustre dancing and her emotionless face, the dancer looked like a rag doll which a child is manipulating to make her dance.
The group dances again utilised the same dance moves and if you weren’t already bored, you were definitely by the penultimate group dance. The first group dance of each series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ has more oomph, passion, emotion, and skill than what I saw (or didn’t see) in this production.
This production contained even more bizarre things such as tattoos, creepy silver babies, Pennywise masks, and a rotting baby bought out by a woman covering in filth and grey. Not only was Lady Macbeth’s demise orchestrated poorly through tattoos shown on her body, her scratching the blood of her hands before a split-second dance choreography before she resorts to search for God knows what on the stage, shake, cry, streaking blood down her face and smearing it across her lips. She then dances to some jolly music where it is not the dance which portrays her demise but her facial expression of psychoticness before a man joins her who is revealed to be Macbeth after he removes his mask. Lady Macbeth then dies but the reason behind that is not terribly clear for although she does begin to strangle herself, Macbeth quickly removes her hand from her neck, but she still dies.
Regarding Macbeth’s death, the Queen stabs him twice with a spear before the rest of the cast join in, they too using spears. There were no entry or exit wounds nor is any of Macbeth’s blood split. The stage does dark, there is an extended pause as the audience is unsure as to whether this disaster has finished before eventually applauding the fact they have survived this train wreck.
Why this production was performed at The Hippodrome, I have no clue. By associating it with the prestige of The Hippodrome, you would expect it to be at an elite standard, not mediocre. Yes, there were some beautifully orchestrated moments where, for example, Lady Macbeth stroked the crown of the Queen before her face, but the overall performance detracts from these intricate moments. You should be able to understand what happens in the performance without knowing anything about it. Those who were not well-versed on Macbeth would have absolutely no idea what was going on. Had Matthew Bourne headed this production, it would have been breathtakingly phenomenal, and I really hope he decides to showcase Macbeth in dance to show us how it really should be done.