Silk Street Theatre, London EC2
Opened 24 March, 2010

Cheek By Jowl have long enjoyed a reputation for the clarity with which Declan Donnellan’s staging represents spatially the power and emotional relationships between characters. Increasingly, however, I am coming to wonder what virtue lies in representation when actual presentation might be at least as useful. The company’s latest Macbeth is an object example.
The production is nigh-unmatched at showing the bonds between Macbeth and his wife. In the wonderful duologue that surrounds the murder of King Duncan (“Macbeth does murther sleep” etc.), Will Keen’s thane repeatedly tries to quit the scene, to be physically wrestled back into place by Anastasia Hille as his wife. In Act V, Lady Macbeth does not exit after her sleepwalking scene but sits, still and mute, her chin cupped lovingly by her husband, his preparations for battle almost offhand as he contemplates her and what they have shared. This is terrific stuff, not least because it directly presents us with their intimacy. It contrasts with the more extreme introspection of Keen’s Macbeth, who truly delivers all his soliloquies to himself and even has the text re-ordered on occasion to facilitate additional soliloquising. But he is far from the only character who does not connect. The first occasion on which one character speaks a line directly to another is some way into Act I, Scene 3; everything hitherto is delivered into the middle distance.
Often the stylised staging robs us not simply of the superficial appearance of naturalness, but much of the underlying import as well. The 12-strong cast are adept at showing suffering: writhing when stabbed and the like. But this is not a play solely about suffering, it is also about action: the actions of Macbeth and others which physically, violently bring that suffering about. Not once is any violence seen to be done at all directly until the two fights in the final battle scene; even then, the swords themselves are mimed, but at least the combatants are in physical proximity to one another. The rest of the time the perpetrators stand off to one side or upstage and make their definitive gestures, while the victims fall, quite disconnected. It may all be a thoughtful representation of Macbeth’s compulsion to internalise, but things do happen as well, and need to be presented.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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