Random thoughts on Cheek by Jowl’s current production of Macbeth
Before the play started I sat in my front row seat looking at a bleak space (not a stage because I was sharing the same level space on which the actors would appear). There were no curtains and the only props were slatted wooden boxes of various heights that were placed at the sides of the playing space. Waiting for the players to take the places, I watched swirls of dark mist eddying down into the bleak lighting (‘the dunnest smoke of hell’?). Once the play commenced, the playing area wasn’t heavily illuminated and, as if to answer Macbeth’s incantatory appeal to ‘Night’s black agents’, the players were all dressed in black.
Darkness is associated with evil, but this production tends to be the evil of the mind. Without props Macbeth’s imaginary daggers (and all the other weaponry in the play) remain just that. The witches never appear, but their words are voiced by the two females of the company, Act 1 Scene 3 is cut from this production and Act 4 Scene 1 (the cauldron scene) is abridged and begins where Macbeth approaches the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags!’ for intelligence of the future. There is no cauldron from which to conjure the apparitions, but it has already been hinted at when the cast form a ring to dance a celebratory highland reel at the Macbeth’s castle, and when the stools are placed in a circle for the banquet at which Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo
The imagery extends into mimetic and balletic demonstrations of the onstage murders. Although Duncan is murdered off stage (as is customary) Banquo mimes his own death, as do Lady Macduff (who appears to be raped first) and her son. The culmination is when Macduff ‘murders’ Macbeth. These actions are all carried out realistically, especially when the men appear to draw swords from behind their backs and their victims fall to the floor as they grasp at life. There is no human contact during these simulated killings.
In a production that, strangely, sees a blind Duncan wearing dark glasses, we are reminded that ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’ – but then again this is one of the excised lines of the play.
To my mind it was a highly stylised production, far removed from the recent Rupert Goold production, starring Patrick Stewart as the murderous, ambitious thane. The earlier visualisation was probably more horrific in its presentations of murder, but this is a more psychological interpretation, one in which the dead return to the stage, and in which the Macbeths still remain close and tactile, even after he has taken the initiative that she has encouraged.