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Cheek by Jowl's two-dimensional new production of Shakespeare's tragedy ultimately becomes wearying. logo
Anastasia Hille and Will Keen in Macbeth
(© Johan Persson)
Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod's minimalist new production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, playing at BAM's Harvey Theatre, begins promisingly, but it's not long before the show's spare elegance and the actors' emotional ferocity both develop a two-dimensional quality, that ultimately make this offering from U.K.'s Cheek by Jowl frustrating and wearying.

At the center of the show is Will Keen's tightly wound turn as the man who murders his way to the Scottish throne after the witches -- heard as disembodied spirits voiced by the ensemble standing in the shadows created by Jane Gibson's murky lighting design -- have prophesied that he will be king.

Keen plays the character as a career soldier: a man of instinct rather than intellect, and delivers the text irregularly and jaggedly, giving the impression that Macbeth has some sort of ADHD as he struggles to form his thoughts and retain his concentration. Similarly, when Keen's turn becomes hyperkinetic or overtly paranoid, one can't help but wonder if the performance is also informed by the kinds of post-traumatic stress syndrome that today's veterans suffer. And while all of this fascinates, there's a key element missing in the turn -- Macbeth's sense of the mordantly ironic, and without this, Macbeth simply becomes a rather ordinary thug.

Anastasia Hille offers an earthy and exceptionally forthright turn as Lady Macbeth. It's a performance that exudes sexuality -- the woman holds Macbeth in her thrall -- and one that also causes theatergoers to wonder if this woman who ultimately becomes queen comes from less than royal origins. Unfortunately, Hille's performance palls as the production progresses through its intermissionless two plus hours.

Ryan Kiggell brings a robust geniality to the role of Macbeth's best friend (and later one of his victims), Banquo, and Orlando Jones mines the sarcasm and cunning that Duncan's son, and Scotland's heir-apparent, Malcolm, must deploy before ascending to his rightful place as the country's ruler.

While many of Donnellan's conceits begin promisingly, they also falter as the show wears on. For instance, throughout the production, the actors often lay hands on one another in rather ceremonial ways -- which works when the company pays homage to King Duncan (David Collings), but feels a little incongruous as Macbeth puts his hands on Lady Macbeth's head centerstage after the character has died (theoretically offstage).

Similarly, the dearth of props in the show can lead to some unfortunately unintended comic outcomes, and the uniformity of the costumes for the male ensemble -- black t-shirts and military pants -- can also make the various characters seem somewhat interchangeable.

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