April 2, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

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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