One of Shakespeare’s most recognizable plays, Macbeth can currently be seen at BAM’s Harvey Theater as part of their spring season in a production by Cheek by Jowl, one of England’s most renowned interpreters of the classics. The company’s aim is to blow the dust off textbook plays, to make them live and breathe by stripping them bare. The design, by house designer and company co-artistic director Nick Ormerod, is consistently spare. The direction, by co-artistic director Nick Ormerod is typically free of embellishments – no-frills and consequently thrilling.
Entering into an encounter with Cheek by Jowl’s work is always a reason for great anticipation, which makes it all the more disappointing to report that their take on Macbeth, though thoughtful, is also deeply flawed and challenging to behold, particularly clocking in as it does at two hours and twenty minutes with no break.
Set on a nearly bare stage, the only set being a number of elongated crates, the company’s take on the play’s early scenes is enlivening and, in part, inspired. Dressed only in simple black costumes, the company moves acrobatically about the stage, telling the story dynamically without any props whatsoever.
These crafty stage methods begin effectively enough but have their wearying elements as well. The three witches who are the first image in the play are merely indicated as the company speaks their lines, supported by whispered echoes. It’s a disconcerting way to begin the play, pulling us away from the plot, which begins with our tragic hero, Macbeth, learning his fate from the twisted lips of the weird sisters.
Presumably, the notion being put across is that the weird sisters – and practically any other character in the play – are interchangeable. In each of them, we should see ourselves – or the potential in ourselves – both for great understanding and for tragic missteps. In a similar twist, the thanes and nobles of the play have been combined into one cluster of similar-looking young men branded, simply, “Thane.”
All this unifying can make for an interesting concept, but the production, meant to free the play of its trappings, ends up a victim of its own notions. What ought to liberate ultimately consumes. The company, each member of which seems capable, is never allowed to find individual characterizations, and the production as a whole suffers as a result. The lack of props is at first enlivening, but after the first few occasions of characters being slaughtered at the hands of invisible attackers, the premise grows tiring and loses its visual effectiveness.
Those who are allowed to chisel their own portraits of their roles are primarily our central couple, Will Keen as Macbeth and Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth. Both are capable players, but neither seems altogether comfortable here. Keen, whose speech is occasionally less than clear, is a diminutive, almost weasel-like presence, hardly the oversized figure that Patrick Stewart made Macbeth just a few years back, also at BAM. There are merits to a scaled-back portrayal, and this performance is in keeping with the overall humanizing of the characters that’s at the heart of this interpretation, but it’s not a performance that makes for thrilling viewing.
Somewhat more successful is Hille’s Lady Macbeth. Though she artfully shows hints of her madness from the word “go,” there’s a certain disconnect between her mostly-sane behavior in the play’s earlier scenes and her thrilling breakdown in the second half. Surely this is the challenge faced by every Lady Macbeth, but Hille faces a particularly uphill battle in facing off against Keen’s less than exemplary Macbeth.
Besides for our central pair, no supporting players are given enough individuation to merit much discussion. The sole standout is Kelly Hotten as the porter, but her reasons for sticking out are more aesthetic than performance-based. Given a stylized perch in a prop-laden outpost, playing the role as a tart tartan security guard, her presence in the proceedings is one of the most jarring elements of this production. Why props, and why now? In a production as uniform as this, any break in the convention must be explained.
It’s unfortunate that this production ultimately can’t live up to the promise of its premise. Though the company’s concepts for this bare bones production are intriguing, they ultimately strip some of the luster from the play’s complexities. Perhaps, as human beings, we’re all somehow interchangeable in our interconnectedness. But Shakespeare knew better than to forget our intricacies and Cheek by Jowl do him a disservice by disregarding this notion, intentionally or unintentionally.