Will Keen, Anastasia Hille, David Caves, David Collings, Kelly Hotten, Orlando James, Ryan Kiggell, Vincent Enderby, Jake Fairbrother, Nicholas Goode, Greg Kolpakchi, Edmund Wiseman
The highly acclaimed Cheek by Jowl, whose successes have been many since its foundation in 1981, now returns to the Barbican to do what it does so well. That is to shed new light on a classic play by staging it imaginatively, and presenting the characters in innovative ways.
In 2008 the company turned their attention to Troilus and Cressida. This time around, it is the two central characters in Macbeth who come under the spotlight.
Will Keens Macbeth does not follow a conventional path, with initial ambition and scheming gradually giving way to guilt, remorse and punishment. Rather, he appears to be from the start a man who hates himself for possessing such an insatiable ambition.
He knows exactly what he is about to do and entirely realises that he has no way of stopping himself.
With some exceptions, his delivery throughout is quite calm and collected, which contrasts starkly with his quivering persona. It is as if he has the ability to analyse his own actions and neuroses from the outside, peering in on his own wretched character.
Similarly, Anastasia Hille does not present Lady Macbeth as the usual power behind the throne, lacking the conscience that Macbeth ultimately has and driving him on through seductive persuasion. Instead, she seems possessed by a crazed determination, which by the end manifests itself as simple hysteria. After Macbeth claims he has seen the murdered Banquo, she laughs to make light of it, but the sound comes across as menacing.
But perhaps more important than the individual characterisations is the way in which the whole production constitutes a blinding tour de force from start to finish. As with Trevor Nunns legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1976, there is no interval, and the characters are, to an extent, reduced to being just a company of people. There is no obvious opening scene with three witches, but rather two women cry the lines from amongst the company on stage. The characters of Ross and Siward, amongst others, go unaccredited, with their parts being played simply by Thanes, and when Banquo and Lady Macduff die we watch them grapple with murderers who arent actually there.
All this hands an intense immediacy to the proceedings. The characters have nowhere to hide on the bare set, and audience and actors alike become witnesses to their crimes. All the performers are dressed in plain black, with only the presence, and length, of an overcoat hinting at anybodys status. By stripping away the social hierarchies visually, we think less about the specifics of how the Thane of Cawdor goes about seizing the throne of Scotland, and more about the wider issues of human greed, ambition and violence.
Unfortunately, the creation of such an intense affair also has its drawbacks. The pacing is relentless, sometimes frantic, so that as soon as Lady Macduff and her son are killed they scurry off and the action continues without pause. As a result, the audience is denied some of the emotional highs and lows that might have resulted from the pace being more varied.
Though this problem is a by-product of the staging choices the company have made, for the most part the production works well, and I, for one, would not suggest that Cheek by Jowl change their methods for the world.