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Brighton Festival 2010


Cheek by Jowl

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Cheek by Jowl have become synonymous with masterfully evoked classics, and this Macbeth is another feather in their already stuffed cap: an intensely enjoyable recreation of one of Shakespeare’s more direct plays. The cast excell in this spartan staging, with more implied and suggested than outright shown, which is also reflected in the minimalist, yet detailed technical set-up: a marriage of abilities on and off-stage that makes this Macbeth so powerful and watchable. There is a bit of a tendancy among the cast to make each line more overwrought that the last, which draws the play out a little, but the final piece is nonetheless a tour-de-force and a must-see for theatre-lovers.


Macbeth is such a harsh Shakespeare: where his other plays frolic in their soliloquies and mistaken identities, this is a tragedy through and through: a short, sharp, stabbing demise of an anti-hero, defeated by his own ambition and arrogance. In no production that I have seen was this as clear as in Cheek by Jowl’s; everything seemed geared towards a quick play, a direct play, and every step in the lead characters’ demise was powerfully driven, powerfully placed through the jerky, energised acting, combined with the evocative, detailed tech: an ensemble piece in so many ways, and all the more worthy of accolade for it. Apart from the interplay between the actors and the production team, the ensemble of actors on-stage also took this play beyond its sometimes over-complicated and over-charactered set-up. The cast of 12 played all parts, never interchanging but covering multiple characters each, moving in and out of the light to become different parts with ease: there were occasionally moments of confusion as to who was playing whom, but this was unavoidable within this style of performance.

This cast of 12 not only covered all characters, but were also used to move around and inhabit the empty stage space, helping create the sense of urgency and directness that the play requires with multiple bodies running across the space at most times. This was all well-orchestrated and choreographed, and worked cleanly in tandem with the rest of the production. The lighting set-up was also beautifully constructed: at no point, on this vast stage, was anyone out of the light who needed to be in it. It was almost as if the production forwent props for lighting effects: an inspired choice to watch, at no point moreso than the appearance of Banquo at the dinner scene; the only point where this decision faltered was in the final battle between Macduff and Macbeth, which looked less epic and more awkward.

A double shame really, as this was the only point when any of the performances seemed anything more than slick. Will Keen’s Macbeth is a powerhouse, both physically and performatively, keeping so much tension in himself that each jerky movement perfectly captures the unbelieving mind stumbling towards his own doom. An excellent sense of comic timing also kept the audience of their toes: playing some lines for laughs was an excellent choice and kept the tempo upbeat, although it did falter entirely during the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech: a little too overwrought. Anastasia Hille’s Lady Macbeth was a wonderful accomplice to this Macbeth, her energy and tension similarly crazed and excitable: gone was the so often overdone villain, replaced by a believable character on the verge of mental collapse, giving a new power to the ‘unsex me here’ and ‘out damn spot’ speeches. These two excellent leads, played in the Freudian interpretation (two halves of a whole, feeding off and leading each other into doom), take the entire production to new heights. Worthy of mention also are Orlando James as Malcolm and Kelly Hotten as The Porter/Lady Macduff: Jones’ Malcolm wonderfully soft, slipping between preening ass (the oft excised scene where Malcolm relates how unworthy he is to lead: brilliantly and humourously performed here) and enthusiastic young prince with ease, and Hotten’s Porter the excellent comic bounce the first half needs, hugely overdone but brilliant for it, and her Lady Macduff a cruel reminder of Macbeth’s arrogance and violence.

In short, this is an excellent production of Macbeth, and the Cheek by Jowl less-is-more ethos takes the play to new heights. Where it occasionally falters under the weight of its own theatricality, the company bring the show back with powerful and decisive performances, allowing this version of a flawed classic to stand head and shoulders above many an interpretation. It’s not as if any small refinements could really be made to make this production better: it is fully realised in its own style, but that style has inherent flaws. Still, an excellent piece, and definitely worth seeing!