Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican


It’s always a joy to discover you share enthusiasms with other people, especially coworkers. A conversation about dry project details can suddenly come to life when you take a detour to discuss really _important_ things, in my case, The Theater! And it was through such a conversation that I was given a tip to check out Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth, currently playing at the Barbican. I was discussing my plans to see Henry V and Measure for Measure, and my colleague said that Cheek By Jowl was a great company and that I really needed to fit a trip to their Macbeth into my calendar. Well, okay then! It was mostly sold out, but then a few extra seats were added (in front of the rest of the seats – be warned that if you’re in AA your knees will be above your hips), and as the negative reviews came in for The Gods Weep, I had a consultation with my theater posse and we made an executive decision to ditch the four hour long Weepie in favor of a two hour long trip to Key Show By Bard. Because, really, what’s 25 quid lost compared to a night wasted at a bad show?

I am going to assume that this show represented the Cheek By Jowl style: the stage was nearly completely bare, the actors dressed mostly identically in black jackets or t-shirts and jeans (and black Doc Martins), the whole thing redolent of Ye Olde Emptye Stage. The cast created very strong effects through use of their voices and lighting and almost nothing else. At the beginning, our witches were but two, but all the men stood there whispering behind them, creating a forest full of evil. There was music and other non-vocal effects, such as knocking/banging and cymbal ringing, and even a phone going off. In the darkness, it worked together nicely to focus the attention on the story. Full credits for stagecraft here, except that in the incredibly powerful “Banquo comes to dinner” scene, the fact that Macbeth delivers his address to the back of the stage meant that even in the front row I could barely hear a thing he said – and for once it wasn’t the fault of the damned 17 year old school girl behind me taking notes on a crackling handful of lined notebook paper. I just could have killed her.

However, the performances by the leads were lacking somewhat. I realize I’m polluted by Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth three years back, but his acting conveyed to me clearly the character’s movement from hearty and happy to doubtful to corrupt and finally just plain mad; Will Keen started seeming partway over the edge and seemed to lack a grasp of moving toward madness, or even expressing it … well, with any subtlety. (I’ve complained about this before. Madness seems to be a hard thing to act out well; drunk seems to get practiced more and thus performed better.) I also found Lady Macbeth (Anastasia Hille) playing the part through a slimmer range than it deserved, though her final mad scene (“Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him!”) was great; she just seemed too quick to kill in general. Keen certainly worked very hard at his Macbeth, and was a sweating wreck long before the play was over, but to me that just showed that his pacing was off, that he sprinted too soon instead of taking his time and giving it all an arc.

Of course, with a two hour, intermission-free running time, the whole play was a bit of a sprint, and I think, in retrospect, that, despite my general preference for shorter shows, it was this cutting that was the greatest fault of this production. The script is incredibly powerful, but most of the moments I had found most affecting in the past – Macduff’s wife’s scene, Macduff finding out about the death of “his pretty chickens” (which should bring tears to your eyes), the whole ghosty banquet – were rushed through and lost a lot of their emotional impact because of their dilution. Even though the staging was very good, Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth unfortunately tended toward the Reader’s Digest Condensed Shakespeare. For that reason, though I think this was a “good enough” show, I really think it’s missable, fine if you want to get in some Macbeth (and probably far less painful than The Gods Weep) or have a free night, but, well, just basically good and competent, and maybe nice as an example of doing a good production without any props. Just don’t have anything to drink beforehand – two hours straight is still a bit much to not have a chance to run to the toliet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 19th, 2010. This show continues through April 10th. For more information on Cheek by Jowl, please see their website. SansTaste saw things differently. For more reviews of this show, please see


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6 Responses to “Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican”

  1. Review – Macbeth, Check by Jowl/Barbican « Sans Taste Says:

    […] For a contrasting view, see Life in the Cheap Seats. […]

  2. howard sharron Says:

    Webcowgirl’s review of Cheek By Jowl’s MacBreth was spot on. It was a huge disappointment. The production systematically wiped out all the potential for dramatic engagement. The dress was all black uniforms, but signifying what? The stage was bare and boring. The witches couldn’t be seen, the weapons of murder were invisible, the speeches couldn’t be heard ( with the exception of MacDuff’s wife) and the ‘innovative’ use of mime used by Lady Macbeth was risible rather then intriguing.
    And then there were the odd discordant appearances of the glaswegian punk castle receptionist ( you couldn’t understand a word she said either) and Lady MacBeth’s doctor dressed in an ordinary suit and tie. If these were attempts to ‘alienate’ the audience they did so, but not in the Brechtian way.
    Th cutting of the text to allow for the two hour straight through dash for the end meant that there was no time for any dramatic build up or exploration of the issues of the play. In the end you were waiting till they just got through the bloody thing and gave thanks it wasn’t a longer ordeal.
    The applause was luke warm…it was more than they deserved.

  3. ING Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I saw this performance in Madrid last night and I hate to admit it, but I walked out after 1 hour. It wasn’t engaging in the slightest, although I did like the fact that they were all in black and I liked the interraction with the other members of the cast. Macbeth’s voice sounded too quivvery from the start. There wasn’t enough projection from the lead characters in general, and I was in row 8….very disappointing.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I liked the fact the guys were all wearing tall boots, but that really wasn’t enough to create an emotional connection with teh show, was it?

  4. Review – Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl/Barbican Says:

    […] a contrasting view, see Life in the Cheap Seats. Tags: anastasia hille, barbican, cheek by jowl, declan donnelan, will […]

  5. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican597 […]

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