April 02, 2010

Macbeth (Cheek by Jowl) @ Silk Street Theatre, The Barbican

Writing about web page http://www.cheekbyjowl.com/productions/macbeth/index.html

I loved Cheek by Jowl's new production of Macbeth, and yet, as I left it, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, for I was beginning to wonder whether the company may have lost their ability to change my world. If you've seen any of the company's previous productions, then you'll have a pretty good sense of this Macbeth without having even been: stark sets, impenetrable darkness, a deep stage, spectacular use of lighting, actors performing together over great distances, scenes overlapping, lots of young men exploring the extents of their bodies, wonderful acting and scenes featuring the entire company standing together to perform a core concept (here, the Witches). It's a potent and fantastic mix, but for the first time in a Cheek by Jowl production, I found it all quite expected. Still, that's a personal disappointment and not one I'd expect many other people to feel.

The most notable initial feature was the small amount of named cast. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Macduff, the Porter, Banquo and Malcolm were accompanied by a chorus of "Thanes" - although parts such as Ross, Angus, Lennox, Donaldbain, Fleance, Young Siward, Seyton and the Murderers were present and performed conventionally, they were all subsumed by the larger concept of an anonymous troupe of black clad performers whose bodies and voices were more often choreographed to create physical images of the play's action. Thus, David Collings's Duncan was a blind man whose addresses to his subordinates became a ritual of touch, symbolised further by the rest of the company laying hands on him as he spoke. Malcolm and Donaldbain's grief became part of a larger mosaic of bodies comforting one another. Macbeth was accompanied by an army of echoing shadows as he went through the motions of the battle as the wounded Captain described it. As well as creating striking images, these stylised displays went some way towards universalising the action, describing it in terms of timeless resonance rather than naturalistic realisation. In many ways, the production seemed to suggest that Macbeth was too epic a story to do more than gesture towards, and our imaginations were left to fill in the rest.

The enormous playing space of the Silk Street Theatre was maximised and drenched in an overwhelming darkness that allowed actors to be swallowed up by the black as they marched upstage, as well as for more particular effects such as the appearance of Banquo's head in the far distance. Enormous slatted wooden boxes stood upright to right and left, through which blinding light shone, illuminating the actors primarily from the sides and creating shafts of light that criss-crossed the space, furthering a conspiratorial atmosphere. Smaller crates provided the only movable set, being brought to the main playing space for use as chairs for the banquet or held overhead as Malcolm's soldiers marched towards Dunsinane.

This fast production (two hours with no interval) was relentless in tone, though with some surprising moments of comedy. The importance of the tonal break occasioned by Kelly Hotten's Porter was thoroughly realised: reeled out in a richly detailed wooden booth with phone, radio, Heat magazine and nail files, this red-headed Scots woman inhabited an entirely different world to the rest of the production. Hilariously, she was besotted with Macduff, and when she realised who she had been keeping locked out (continually replacing the receiver of the door buzzer on the wall), she mouthed "I love you" into the phone, squirted perfume under her arms and into her crotch and left her booth in order to flirt shamelessly with him. The appearance of Hotten as Lady Macduff later made for a fun comparison. Also fun, though more pointed, was Orlando James' Malcolm in a rivetting England scene. As Malcolm described his evils, he adopted a flamboyantly camp manner and voice that contrasted with Macduff's stillness and quiet Scots accent. Deliciously unctuous, James relished his "testing" of Macduff and contrasted his performance nicely with his "true" self as he finally revealed his backbone.

David Caves' Macduff was the emotional heart of the production. While Macbeth gave the murderers their instructions, a family portrait was established downstage with Macduff embracing both wife and son. This still portrait bled into the scene at Macduff's castle, with the thane leaving the picture as his flight to England was mentioned. His later receipt of the news, sat on a crate and surrounded by the anonymous thanes who laid their hands upon him, was choked and devastatingly restrained, his grief internalised and barely expressible.

Fight scenes were stylised and performed at distance, the victims responding to imagined actions with the attackers often at the other end of the stage or entirely absent. This occasionally bordered unintentionally on the comic because of the detail of the wounds inflicted, with Banquo and Lady Macduff in turn acting out every punch and slash when a more suggestive fall might have fitted better. Certainly the sight of Lady Macduff being invisibly raped was disconcerting, but I found the level of detail rather lessened the impact.

The stand-out performance was Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth. In her opening soliloquy, Hille's performance was nervy, characterised by stammers and twitches as her mind leapt ahead of her words. There was a manic quality to this performance that suggested a disposition towards madness even before her decline. Her climactic sleepwalking scene, buffeted in by the rest of the company wielding crates was particularly rivetting, her quiet muttering suddenly punctuated by a scream of anguish towards Macbeth (if I remember rightly, on her shout that "Banquo's dead"). Following this scene, in a beautifully tender sequence, she sat on a crate and remained onstage until the announcement of her death. As she sat in silence, with a smile on her face, Macbeth stood and cradled her chin, the two sharing a reminiscence of happiness until, finally, her death was reported, at which point she turned and left. Her presence was Macbeth's fantasy, an illusion of a time past that no longer had any place.

Her relationship with Will Keen's Macbeth was characterised by struggle, their restraint working both ways as they argued. With hands manouvering around each other, clasps continually formed and then broken, even their day-to-day routine was a battle for control and stability that was never resolved. During the excellent banquet scene, it was Macbeth's turn to show his anxiety as he marched about the stage, upturning crates and shaking in anguish. It was comfort he needed, and the tenderness demonstrated by Lady Macbeth cut through his fears and allowed him to regain control. The tragedy here was in the circumstances that had driven two fragile people to the brink, when one could see that all they needed was each other. In the final moments, Lady Macbeth crept in from the sidelines and lay down beside Macbeth's broken body, pulling herself in close and going to sleep next to him. On this achingly beautiful image, the lights faded to black, the couple finding peace at last.

This ethereal, shadowy production captured a sense of breakdown and collapse that personalised the tragedy. The moments of emotion and poignancy struck through with resonance, particularly so as much of the rest of the production felt a little cold in its approach: Cheek by Jowl's style deconstructed the play but didn't build as much in its place as their other recent productions. However, this haunting production will no doubt stay with the viewer for a long time.


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  1. Duncan

    I saw this twice and each time I needed to sit down in the Barbican foyer afterwards to recover. Playing it without an interval meant that its grip never relaxed and at the end of two hours its spell was very tight on my mind. It also meant that the last half of the production wasn’t punctuated by the sound of cups and bottles being kicked over and cascading down the seating.

    The decision to make Duncan blind meant that he had to be guided everywhere by Malcolm and Donalbain, which immediately introduced the visual theme of close personal contact between characters. This was later displayed in the bonds of fealty shown by the thanes to their successive Kings and also within other families, the Macduffs and Macbeths. Duncan also established the theme of offstage deaths being actualised by physical separations onstage. When he died and moved from between his sons, it created a vacuum into which they imploded, holding each other in a fraternal embrace, which was immediately turned into a huddle by the concerned thanes. This theme culminated in Lady Macbeth pulling away from her husband’s long, lingering embrace towards the end of the play and taking a slow walk offstage.

    Macbeth’s embrace of his wife totally transformed the words at the start of 5.3. Normally “Bring me no more reports, let them fly all” is said by an angry Macbeth spitting out orders and losing his rag with the “cream-fac’d loon” messenger. What we got instead was a man transfixed in an almost beatific state of happiness.

    When Macbeth was finally killed, he died alone unlike most of the other significant deaths in the play, which made it seem a particularly cold, empty event. Having his wife come and lie next to him provided a proper end to his story, as by that stage the intense focus on their bond had made us see the value of it.

    Anastasia Hill’s Lady Macbeth was truly believable as someone skirting the borders of sanity. Her delivery of the lines in the sleepwalk sequence was chilling, particularly “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” I felt distinctly moved when in her sleepwalk she acted out getting undressed for bed and invited Macbeth to join her, only to watch him walk away disinterested.

    Other great moments included the empty, near silent mimed dinner the Macbeths ate after their guests had been ushered out. This was such a contrast to the music and dancing that began the sequence.

    There was a pattern in the use of the violin onstage. It played a single note in the early instances where blood was shed: when the Captain stabbed himself in the hand, when Macbeth noticed the drops of blood on the vision of the dagger and when Macbeth’s hands were smeared with Duncan’s blood. Most beautifully, when his wife joined him with her hands covered in the same blood, the violin changed from playing a single note to a two-note chord! It also played a single note when Banquo was murdered.

    And what with Amy Pond in Doctor Who, it seems Scottish women in miniskirts are currently quite fashionable in quality drama productions!

    05 Apr 2010, 15:48


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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