With shafts of fierce side-lighting streaming through wooden slatted pillars across a bare black space, Cheek by Jowl’s “Macbeth” looks set to be a piece of contemporary dance. And so it (almost) proves. The well-spoken text remains intact but the focus is on highly choreographed bodies in space. The production, now in the middle of an international tour, is undeniably impressive but chilly — a case of physical expression, yes, dramatic tension, not so much.
Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have long espoused a stripped-down aesthetic to often highly dynamic effect. Here, however, less turns out to be less.
Dressed throughout in all-black ensembles of T-shirts, combat pants and army boots, the interchangeable, multitasking cast slip easily in and out of scenes and locations conjured solely by their bodies and the odd slatted stool.
And while the banishing of every conceivable prop — no letter, banqueting cups, not even battle weapons — leads to impressively achieved mime, audiences are likely to be too busy admiring to become properly involved.
The pivotal problem with “Macbeth” is how to present the witches. Unless they are convincingly frightening and/or thrilling, why would Macbeth listen to them? Taking a cue from the line “Nothing is but what is not,” Donnellan elects not to personify the witches. Their words come from unidentifiable voices from the midst of the whispering full company standing motionless on the stage.
That staging idea, like most of the stylized production, feels overly considered but it neatly isolates Will Keen’s lean, haunted Macbeth. From there on in he grows ever more febrile. Early on he’s stabbing at short phrases with nervous exhalations and bursts of anguished laughter.
Isolation is key to Donnellan’s handling of the central character. He tends to keep Keen downstage of the action. That allows Keen’s highly intelligent speaking of the soliloquies to be extremely illuminating but divorces him from the action.
More worrying: placing Macbeth’s psychological state in unstinting close-up swiftly hits the law of diminishing returns. As a result, Keen’s most impressive work doesn’t appear until the final act, where his icily cold understatement leaves much more to audiences’ imaginations.
Psychological overstatement is also encouraged from Anastasia Hille. One of the U.K.’s most febrile actresses, she first played the role 17 years ago at the National Theater and remains perfectly cast as a woman who descends from excitement into self-lacerating terror.
Yet, robbed of the relief of a contrasting world around her, Hille’s performance grows predictable and repetitive.
The fluidity of the Cheek by Jowl approach remains powerful with scenes flowing ceaseless into one another, especially with Donnellan’s actors forever racing across the stage like dancers. This end result, however, is a piece of director’s theater that feels anything but fleet-footed.