Review: Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” 

And first a moan. I’d intentionally booked front row seats for this back in December, so upon arrival I was a little surprised to find that there was another row of seats in front of ours, row AA which is set a little closer to the ground but with nowhere near sufficient a rake to prevent people’s heads being seriously in the way. This extra row was added in to sell extra tickets due to it being a sellout and whilst I’m happy for the Barbican with their success here, I’m most annoyed that it subsequently affected my enjoyment of the evening.

Cheek by Jowl return to London with their interpretation of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s examination of the cost of chasing power and limitless ambition without responsibility, using their trademark inventiveness to create an otherworldly experience. Setting up in the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican, there is excellent use of the space throughout the play: the opening haze-filled scene seems to take place in a seemingly endless void, later on the rear wall is used most effectively with spotlights and shadows thrown up. So much is left dark or in shadow, the audience is left to let their imagination fill in the gaps.

Nick Ormerod’s design (and indeed Declan Donnellan’s direction) aesthetic seems informed by Antony Gormley: scenes often recall the Another Place installation on Crosby beach, as does the main publicity shot, and even the wooden boxes surrounding the stage evoke images of the dance work SutraWith Judith Greenwood’s atmospheric lighting, the combined effect is quite stunning, especially given the lack of props. Sound is also deployed to incredible effect, most notably in the Weird Sister scenes, with the company repeating the lines in a menacing whisper as the prophecies are delivered, most chilling and effective. Drums bang, cymbals clatter, an eerie violin is scratched, sounds emerge from all over the stage. The world created in which to play is so well done that it is hardly surprising that the storytelling doesn’t quite match up.

Pared down to just over a couple of hours, everything is necessarily speeded up which does have a bit of a detrimental effect on the portrayal of the lead characters. From the outset, Will Keen’s Macbeth captures the intensity of a man on the edge of madness and Anastasia Hille’s Lady Macbeth was steely strong and coldly ambitious, but then there’s little place else to go with this couple. I felt like there was little attempt to play the nuances of the characters, not that they were bad performances per se, just surprisingly one-note.

I ended up being more impressed by the likes of David Caves’ Macduff, and Ryan Kiggell’s Banquo. There was also a smattering of interesting choices like David Collings’ Duncan being blind and Kelly Hotten’s bawdy Glaswegian Porter that kept the audience on their toes, and the rest of the company did strong work in fluidly moving between the minor characters, a faceless chorus, forming scenery, creating sounds, dancing a Scottish country reel…they really do earn their keep here!

However, whilst the abbreviated running time is quite welcome, the final quarter of the show loses much of the energy and inventiveness that precedes it and subsequently ended up feeling really quite punishing. Malcolm and Macduff’s conversation about the crown in particular was interminable and the general consensus around me was that it really did need an interval. And whereas the focus was clearly on encouraging the imagination of the audience, the amount of miming on show, dangerously close to being over-egged at times, did feel a little too much.

There are elements of this Macbeth that soared, in the staging and the evocation of a menacing atmosphere in which the supernatural can take hold and one is never quite sure what will come next. But in paring back so much, I fear that too many layers and subtleties have been lost to make this a truly great production.

Running time: 2 hours (with no interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Note: they warn you about haze being used in this performance, although I am still not sure who this is directed at, asthmatics?

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