Dissecting human darkness

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 08.10.2009

Cheek by Jowl’s production of Macbeth recently premiered at the Théâtre Royal in Namur, a jewel-like, stunningly restored building in the heart of a city which most Luxem­bourgers only know as a motorway sign signalling that Brussels is but a step away…The good news is that the company have now embarked on a European tour and that Luxembourg is one of their stops: Yes, Macbeth is coming to the Grand Théâtre in April, which will be a unique opportunity not just for this year’s IA-students, who will have been busy analysing both the characters and the play’s themes by then, but also a perfect treat for anyone (and there are plenty of us!) that got a first glimpse of the Shakespearean world thanks to the Scottish play.

What might be familiar material has been made new in unobtrusive ways; the almost bare, darkened stage (designed by Nick Ormerod) and the simple black costumes add to the timelessness of what you see. Unlike with other recent productions there is no reference – visual or otherwise – to contemporary or modern history, to the wars in Iraq or ex-Yugoslavia, to African warlords or life in the former Soviet Union.

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth address most of their soliloquies directly to the audience, opening up what too often feels like a private nightmare only. Declan Donnellan, who directs the production, prioritises the text, the words themselves: the lines are beautifully spoken; the acting is intimate and sober rather than over-dramatic. This gives the evening an eerie purity and a chilling sort of quietness even though the events presented are far from calm!In a recent interview Donnellan called Macbeth the “tragedy of the imagination”. Even before he kills King Duncan, Macbeth, who is, no doubt, one of Shakespeare’s most self-aware thinkers, is tortured by fears and hallucinations, but ambition eggs him on. Though he has become Scotland’s national hero thanks to his utter ruthlessness on the battlefield, his conscience warns him against regicide, which is in an altogether different category!

Duncan’s murder is about to become the pivotal event in Macbeth’s life, the start of a long, agonising suicide of the soul as well as the trigger for an endless series of crimes that can only be halted by the perpetrator’s own death.

Body language is key to this production; watch out for the way his loyal followers protectively group around the elderly king in the opening scenes, the way Macbeth (an excellent Will Keen) and Lady Macbeth (a very moving Anastasia Hille) hold hands when they return to their guests during the first banquet, but nervously run up and down the whole length of the stage once they feel trapped by their own choices, the way actors freeze while action goes on elsewhere, creating sculptural tableaux along the way.

Though it may sound a bit odd, another excellent reason to go and see this Macbeth are the swift transitions between scenes – one event seamlessly metamorphoses into the next one as characters vanish into darkness and others appear or come alive again. This gives the play a unique organic quality that eliminates anything gimmicky or spectacular. Even the opening thunderclap that traditionally makes you jump out of your seat has been scrapped!

Instead, the audience is allowed to enter the characters’ inner worlds. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are nuanced complex figures whose uneasy complicity is marked by nervous laughter, which is then gradually being eroded by their estrangement, by Macbeth’s cynicism and Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness. Banquo (Ryan Kiggell) stands out, too: not only is he physically very different from Macbeth, making the latter look almost fragile, but we also see him become much more talkative after the first banquet. He is a family man who obviously feels at ease with himself and the world and enjoys celebrating in style!

Three other elements that deserve special mention are the way the character of King Duncan (David Collings) is conceived, the refreshingly different weird sisters and the genuinely funny figure of the porter. Saying more about them would spoil the surprise effect for anyone heading towards the Grand Théâtre in April.All I can do is advise you to book tickets as soon as possible since Cheek by Jowl’s vibrant interpretation brilliantly serves both Macbeth and his haunting, poetic perception of life. You won’t regret it.

Macbeth was at the Théâtre Royal in Namur from September 22 to 26; it will be at our Grand Théâtre from April 14 to 17, 2010

Janine Goedert
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