nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 7, 2011
Ever wonder what it’s like inside Macbeth’s head? Declan Donnellan’s intermittently successful production of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy attempts to answer that question, but ends up raising even more questions—unanswerable ones—in the process.
Donnellan, designer Nick Ormerod, and their company Cheek by Jowl have been deconstructing classics since the 1980s, and their aesthetic for Macbeth focuses solely on text. There are no props (no swords, daggers, etc.), no blood, little set, and the costumes (also designed by Ormerod) are what theater people would call “stage blacks.” During fight scenes, and the murder of Macduff’s family, the actors spar alone, literally thrashing themselves all over the stage. The Weird Sisters are disembodied voices in Macbeth’s head. It’s a fascinating concept, which would be better served with actors who drew their characters more clearly.
You can never really get a handle on what Will Keen’s Macbeth is thinking, except to say that he starts out particularly nervous and eventually goes mad. Whether he’s driven to insanity because of his actions, or ambition, or pressure is particularly unclear. What is clear is that his partner, played by Anastasia Hille, knows exactly how to get her way, and it’s through sex. One make-out session later and Macbeth is ready to kill Duncan.
For a production that is so text-driven, the audience’s comprehension of it is murky. While the cast members “speak the speech” well and the story is told with clarity, their delivery is obscured by shouting or with ellipses after every other word. It’s also very hard keeping track of characters when the entire cast is clad in black t-shirts and jeans.
Some are better than others. David Collings is noteworthy as Duncan, blind, and Lady Macbeth’s doctor. David Caves is astounding as Macduff, particularly when he finds out that his family has been murdered. In that sequence, we are watching a man experience all of Kubler-Ross’s seven stages of grief, and the silence is deafening. Kelly Hotten finds all of the humor as the Porter, though she clearly gets more laughs because of her body language than because of the text.
The lack of props, blood, etc., gets distracting, and you long for even a fork so they don’t have to mime eating imaginary dinner. Similarly, the production’s pacing goes from hyper-frenetic to deathly slow. Donnellan presents the play without an intermission, and it runs about two hours and twenty minutes. Anyone who’s sat in the seats at BAM's Harvey Theatre knows merely an hour can feel like a long haul. If you’re not engaged in what you’re watching, it feels even longer.