Cheek by Jowl’s production of “Macbeth” is performed without an intermission, which makes it rather suspect – those of us with a smidgen of cynicism wonder if there’s no breaking point because the director or producer fear the audience won’t return for the second half. I can assure you, that’s not why there’s no intermission in this production at the BAM Harvey Theatre.
As we were shuffling out of the theatre last night, one woman said to her companion, “Well, those are two hours I’ll never get back.” But, while not alone in her opinion, it’s fair to say most of the audience didn’t agree. Of my companions and myself, one loved the production wholeheartedly, one more than halfheartedly but not wholly, and then there was me. I liked a lot of it, but have bones to pick. For one thing, a production that’s been around for the better part of two years should know how long the play runs, and both the BAM web site and the program said two hours, without intermission. When we arrived at the theatre, we were forewarned more accurately – two hours and twenty minutes, without intermission.
For this production, its flow, its forward motion, would not bear the interruption of an intermission. Director Declan Donnellan has his actors moving, touching, stroking, reaching, watching, listening, throughout the play. The action is non-stop. Then why is this, one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, two hours and twenty minutes? Because what is not non-stop is the speaking of Shakespeare’s words. In the title role, Will Keen totally ignores Shakespeare’s advice to the players. He does not speak the speech trippingly, he most certainly does saw the air, and he added twenty minutes to the running time with his pauses alone. As my friend said, there were no trucks in Brooklyn last night because they were all idling in the pauses in this production. Which is too bad -- Mr. Keen’s characterization was more than interesting. His compact muscled body was taut with repressed energy, his eyes darted suspiciously, angrily, he was the embodiment of a paranoid man of power. But my attention wandered when his gaze glazed over between the third and fourth words of a phrase, again and again. Mr. Keen’s Thane of Cawdor jabs out a word or two, then searches the air for more, glares angrily toward the audience, then grabs a few words from them. This made him the most verbally incomprehensible Macbeth I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the play in Japanese.
Lady Macbeth was tightly wound from the moment she appeared, growing toward a harridan, and by the time she’d decided upon murder, she was a regular fishwife. Anastasia Hille was thin to the point of gauntness, her hair wild and untamed, her pale feet bare as she read her husband’s letter. In her “unsex me here” soliloquy, I felt Ms. Hille’s Lady Macbeth was mad because none of her babies had lived. This did not make sense of her actions– even in an irrational way – but seemed to clear the way for her mad dash to murder and mayhem. Once company came, she was no longer disheveled, she put on pumps (!), hair pulled back in a bun. Her public persona still shrill, she held it together better than her husband. The problem, though, with starting at such a pitch in her early soliloquies is that, like starting a song on a high note, where on earth can you go in the second half of the play? The woman was no different in her mad scene than she was in her opening scene.
For me the main problem was that while she ranted, her husband paused. This, of course, is appropriate to the story of the play in the first half or so and mayn’t have been as distracting if he’d paused prior to killing Duncan and then pulled his speech together as he became more and more murderous. If he’d used that jagged, annoyingly slow speech -- it was not a pattern, it was lack of pattern -- to differentiate his mental state from one part of the story to another, it might have been effective. As it was, he appeared incapable of stringing enough words together to make a phrase. My friend thought this was a valid depiction of madness. I thought he was applying the Method to Shakespeare. Not to mention (although I will), that in the beginning of the play, he’s a great general, admired and liked and respected by his countrymen and his king. We’re not talking “I, Claudius” here, where a speech impediment made ignorant people think the man stupid. This is a style of inarticulateness that would be unlikely in an eleventh century general and is annoying from an actor of Mr. Keen’s obvious talent.
Moving on to the physical nature of the play – Nick Ormerod designed a spare acting area ripe for lighting effects, with wooden crates of different sizes lining both sides of the stage. These are made of Birnam wood, of course.
Everyone (except the extraneous gatekeeper, below) wears black. All black. Black on black. The actors’ movements are smooth, choreographed, coordinated. Donnellan keeps the Macbeths at the center, to the point of not naming many characters in the program’s cast list. Noticeably toned down, the other characters and actors fade back into the usually visible ensemble when their characters were not needed.
One might even wonder if Donnellan was making everyone else a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.
From the play’s opening, the creepy factor is established – Judith Greenwood’s design illuminates the frightening, casts shadows here and beams of light there, and allows whispers to come from the almost dark. We see people standing on stage, but we cannot see their faces. The “weird” sisters speak, and there are constant whispers around them – this effect is used later in the play as well. From this beginning we hear an excellent sound design by Helen Atkinson. Voices from the dark are one thing, but whispers are truly creepy.
These sounds also lean toward the interpretation that Macbeth is hearing voices throughout – could it be that no one else is there, just the whispers….?
A man breaks ranks with the formation onstage, and runs through and around the lines of people. He comes in front and appears to stab himself in the hand, prompting the line, “What bloody man is that?” Throughout, the actors use no props but the wooden crates. Despite the lack of props, all the fight scenes and murders are highly effective because of the actors’ reactions. Credited as an associate director of the company and movement director, Jane Gibson did marvelous work with the cast.
The introduction of Macbeth and Banquo is intriguing, setting up the disparity of each one’s behavior and speech patterns. Banquo is laid back, relaxed, he lopes from here to there looking for the owners of the voices speaking to the pair. Macbeth rather stomps about, as if he could pounce on the ethereal voices prophesying his future. Throughout, Mr. Keen’s Macbeth can barely restrain his pent up energy. And throughout, Ryan Kiggell’s Banquo is calmer, more judicious, and then suspicious.
Banquo’s ghost, when “seen” at all, is so precisely lit that only his head shows, and then two shadows of his head and shoulders radiate out as his bright head looms toward the cowering Macbeth. It’s gorgeous. Throughout, there was fine lighting over an excellent, stripped bare design.
The lack of props didn’t mean the actors didn’t use objects, and herein lies danger. Miming can be annoying, potentially jarring the audience out of the scene – in one instance, after Macbeth’s fit on seeing Banquo’s ghost, the Thanes exited at Lady M’s exhortation – she screams them all away. The now royal couple sits at opposite ends of a long (invisible) dining table and have a perfectly ordinary conversation about death and murder while serving themselves invisible food. What distracted me was Macbeth serving himself from an invisible someone holding a bowl for him. And yet something similar was done in the MacDuff murder scene, in fact in all the scenes of violence – we do not see the perpetrators of the acts of violence, only the reaction of the victims. Therefore there are invisible people on the stage…
…or in Macbeth’s mind.
Once the first murder was done, Mr. Donnellan got Akalaitis fever and opened a black hole to another universe, pulled the vulgar gatekeeper out of it for a loud scene that had nothing to do with anything, then pushed her back to her galaxy far, far away. The gatekeeper’s scene is not funny, ever; just cut it. (My companions loved this scene, by the way.)
Despite the dreaded gatekeeper scene, Mr. Donnellan’s carefully choreographed direction of this finely focused production was fascinating. The ensemble leaned against and held onto the wooden crates, moving them, sitting on them, placing them where they were needed. They were constantly on the fringes of the “private” scenes, impassively watching the Macbeths go mad. All figures commiserated physically with any one character’s triumph or woe with group hugs of black-clad figures stroking the suffering character.
There was little focus on scenes without Macbeth – he, in essence, introduced those scenes: He said what he would do to MacDuff and his people for running off to England, and the scene of the savage murders of Lady MacDuff and the children is enacted as if a dream, an extension of Macbeth’s wishing it so. (Kelly Hotten gave us a striking Lady MacDuff in addition to Lady Macbeth's gentlewoman.) The England scene with MacDuff and Malcolm was the longest without a Macbeth in it, and played a little flatly except for MacDuff’s response to his family’s murders.
Once again, the possibility looms – was it that no one else was ever there, just Macbeth and his fevered brain?
Additions to the play are party songs and a scene of dancing (music by Catherine Jayes). This Lord and Lady Macbeth are not afflicted with coldness in the marriage bed. They embrace, they touch, they hug, they definitely cleave. Once the doctor (well played by David Collings after his extremely likable Duncan is murdered) says he has no art to cure Lady Macbeth, she sits center while her husband, ordering his men about, caresses her face.
Lady Macbeth gazes up at her husband adoringly even after the scream that signals her death. Yet another point toward the idea that all of this is in Macbeth’s mind.There are some wonderful ideas and exciting scenes in this production. The Macbeths dancing together with the Thanes looking on and applauding is mesmerizing, and is one of the scenes that makes me believe this is one long dream sequence of Macbeth’s madness. Mr. Keen’s choice, though, to say every line so differently from everyone else in the world to the extent that the lines became indecipherable, drained some of the production’s power and energy.
Regarding the thought that this story is all told inside Macbeth’s head:
1) Should this be titled “Macbeth’s Dream?”
2) If it is his dream, perhaps the reason Keen stops, stares, says a few words, stops, glares, etc., etc., etc., is that when one dreams, one might exit from the dream for a moment, rather like nodding off, and then come back into the dream. But if he’s nodding off, there's the danger the audience may as well.
“Macbeth” is running another week (to 17 April) at the BAM Harvey Theatre. Go. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer so I can rustle through my box of paperback editions of Shakespeare.