This Macbeth’s Dagger Is Only of the Mind


The financial crisis has hit Caledonia hard. Indeed, the downturn has even struck Cheek by Jowl’s touring production of the Scottish play, presented at BAM. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have taken a distinctively penny-pinching—if stylish—approach to poor theater. This play boasts no dagger, no blood, not a single weird sister. Birnam Wood has apparently been logged, providing the lumber for the packing crates that compose the set.

Since it formed amid the excess of the 1980s, Cheek by Jowl has taken a minimalist approach to classic texts, believing that vigorous staging and engaged acting will do more to illuminate a script than lavish trappings. Usually this method works well, but this Macbeth feels almost too impoverished—the story threatens to slip away against the stark lighting and gloomy costumes. (An inexplicable exception: the porter, who appears in a fully appointed gatehouse, dressed and painted as a sozzled Scottish lassie.) Some speeches step forth vividly, but many molder amid the visual sameness.

Donnellan has cast an unusual pair as Macbeth and his Lady. Will Keen seems almost too petite to wield Macbeth’s soldierly status and his voice, which can turn froggy when he’s not shouting, lends him little authority. You might expect Donnellan to contrast this with a formidable Lady M, but Anastasia Hille plays her as tension-wracked and frail, half-mad from her first scene. Even if neither seems to suit his or her role, they do generate a malign heat together, and many of the play’s pleasures derive from the intensity of their perverse union.

Yet portraying both of them so anti-heroically throws the arc of the play out of whack. If we don’t sympathize with them initially, we care little for the tragedy they bring upon themselves. Perhaps Donnellan’s parsimonious production could have benefited from some emotional generosity, too—a more compassionate approach to these flawed heroes. Well, that and witches.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2011

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