Macbeth, it seems, is the Shakespearean play of choice this year, with three productions of the tale playing in London at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Open Air theatre and the Barbican, where Cheek By Jowl’s version opened last night.
I expect all three to be very different affairs, with the Globe offering drawing on Scotland’s violent past, the Open Air production aimed at children and Cheek By Jowl’s show pared back to the bare bones.
There is little to fill the stage of the Barbican’s Silk Street theatre. Crate-like structures line the wings, but that is as far as Nick Ormerod’s design goes in the way of props or setting. Instead the tale of ambition, greed and fear is played out on a dark, lonely stage, with so often Will Keen’s Macbeth or Anastasia Hille’s Lady Macbeth standing secluded in a spotlight with only their growing internal terror and madness for company.
This is not a Macbeth about blood and battles, gore and glory – though the mimed murders are as brutally affecting as anything Quentin Tarantino and a special effects team could have concocted, cleverly leaving the audience to imagine the worst of the unseen atrocity – this is a Macbeth focused on inner turmoil. Keen as the Scottish warrior is skittish and unsure while chasing ambition, shaking and shivering while soliloquising, yet more assured in his bloody deeds when ruled instead by fear.
It is not just the design that has been restricted. Scenes meld and blend, spilling over into each other as the show plays through without an interval. From the moment Macbeth hears the predictions of the witches – who are never seen, just heard as voices echoing on the breeze – his fate is set in motion, never to be slowed, never to be stopped, continuously moving along a line to its culmination.
The one break from monochrome into colour comes in the Porter’s scene, when the timeless, indistinct blackness gives way to a booth-dwelling, tartan-miniskirted, flame-haired, metal detector-wielding woman. This cameo from Kelly Hotten, who also plays Lady MacDuff, is a moment of light, bright relief in an otherwise dark production.