Tuesday 30 March 2010

Seeing is believing

Macbeth, Barbican, London

Some shows change the way one feels about a classic play and others make one think about old texts in a new light. Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth is undoubtedly a thinking-man’s production; an enlightening intellectual endeavour, which casts countless worn-out lines in a sparkling new light, even if it is slightly lacking in visceral punch. This is an exhilarating experience for those hungry for new ideas about an entrenched classic but also an unashamedly challenging show, which might leave some spectators (especially those unfamiliar with the text) out in the cold..

The central conceit to Declan Donnellan’s rigorous ensemble piece is pertinent and original. This is Shakespeare stripped down and then some. The stage is bare, with only a cluster of wooden slate boxes to close down the space and filter the lighting. The costume is uniform (except for an explosive, neon clad cameo from the porter), with everyone dressed in black and, other than the faintly-military jackets donned by the principals, looking uncannily like stage-hands. Crucially, very few props are used and everything – from Macbeth’s first letter to Lady Macbeth, through to the battle sequences, bloody murders and swarming forests – is mimed. Thus, from the outset, the distinction between real and unreal, hard fact and crazed fantasy, is impossibly blurred.

This is an ingenious device to use in a tragedy that pivots around the idea that ‘seeing is believing.’ Everything that goes wrong, goes wrong mainly when this mantra is subverted; Macbeth starts down his bloody path after choosing to believe a prophesy from three sisters that may or may not be real. Donnellan has recognised the significance of this central conceit, concerning vision and truth, and brought it blazing to the surface. The three weird sisters never make it on-stage and are instead located somewhere in the audience, with the ensemble whispering the sisters’ predictions behind Macbeth’s back. It is all the spookier, strangely insinuates the audience in the action and also recalls one of the play’s most prescient lines; ‘Present fears/Are less than horrible/Imaginings.’ The witches are scarier for their absence and Macbeth’s willingness to embrace these spectral soothsayers, all the more questionable.

When Lady Macbeth receives news of the prophecy from her husband, Anastasia Hille mimes reading the letter in her (temporarily non-blood soaked) hands. It is the kind of directorial touch that has one clucking with approval; we realise Lady Macbeth’s eagerness to believe Macbeth’s prediction of their future glory knows no bounds and that it is, in part, the fertility of this couple’s imagination that gets them into so much trouble. The two want to believe their regal future so badly, that they will do anything to transform it into reality. That such clarity can come from such a slight moment is testament to the insight searing through this carefully devised re-interpretation.

It is lucky these embellishments work so well and reveal so much, because the first half is confusing in places. Cheek by Jowl has worked so hard to locate the essence of this tragedy that, at moments, they risk stripping the meat from the bone. The first half is so refined and focused that it is sometimes hard to understand. The scenes snap by at an assured pace, the plot rolls forward and monumental monologues arrive surprisingly soon. There is little time to acclimatise, to settle into the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language, which means some of the earlier scenes are slightly wasted. Lady Macbeth ‘unsexes’ herself awfully soon and, coming so quickly and with so little preparation, this spiky and complex speech slides by nearly unnoticed.

The delivery – all nuance and natural rhythms – is also sometimes obfuscating. The actors do not stand on ceremony for Shakespeare’s speeches and although this makes for nicely understated and local performances, the delivery is blurred. The shape of some of the finer monologues is sacrificed and, particularly in the first half, some of the soaring images never quite materialise.

Yet as the central conceit starts to take hold – and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s fantastical imaginings become reality - these problems recede and moments of real revelation accrue. After the deed is done, Macbeth stumbles into the hall with his arms stretched out awkwardly. As he whispers fiercely with Lady Macbeth, this unnatural pose starts to niggle at the audience. Just what has happened to Macbeth’s arms? The mystery is solved only near the end of the scene, when we realise Macbeth is miming and his arms are sagging under the weight of two blood soaked daggers. It is such a clever moment; one that jolts us into recognising that we, the audience, are a vital part in making Macbeth’s fantasy real. It also adds extra resonance to Macbeth’s infamous monologue – ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ – since imagined daggers and real ones look identical in this show. Any production that can make this near-eroded line seem new is something special indeed.

Will Keen is an unlikely but engrossing Macbeth; nervous as hell at the start, arms twitching at his sides and his speech a constant, urgent, hiss. He seems the most unlikely of murderers and a sorry, slight excuse for a King. Yet, as his imaginings solidify and his confidence is stoked by the weird sister’s predictions, Keen’s Macbeth grows into his role as King. Once crowned, his trembling subsides and his whispers take on real authority. It is interesting that it is only when surrounded by his courtiers – joint witnesses to what up until now has only been possible in Macbeth’s wildest dreams – that Macbeth is convincing as King. 

Whereas Keen’s Macbeth finds strength as he becomes steeped in blood, Anastasia Hille’s Lady Macbeth falls apart. There isn’t far to fall, since she is frail and acutely nervy from the start. Hille is an intense performer but her Lady Macbeth seesaws between commanding and chaotic, whilst never properly developing as the action unfolds. Still, she is the other half to some entrancing scenes. After Duncan is killed, the new King and Queen share a ‘celebratory’ dinner together. Keeping with the motif running throughout this production, the couple eat off imaginary plates and drink imaginary wine. It is a moment that rams home the hopelessness of this couple’s scheme; that they have risked everything on whispered prophesies from unseen sisters, all just to eat imaginary food in an imaginary Kingdom. They have gambled everything and received precisely nothing in return.


Till 10 April 2010


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