Declan Donnellan's dark, spare and forceful production of Macbeth for Cheek by Jowl is technically the most sophisticated in the company's short historyThe Observer

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

Cast

Cast in order of speaking

Des McAleerDuncan/Macduff
Timothy WalkerMalcolm
Lloyd OwenDonalbain/1st Murderer
Ged McKennaSergeant/2nd Murderer
Anthony DixonLennox
Liam HalliganRossv
Keith BartlettMacbeth
Raymond SawyerBanquo/Doctor
Duncan DuffAngus
Leslee UdwinLady Macbeth
Simon BoltonFleance/Young Macduff
Anne WhitePorter/Lady Macduff

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
Lighting DesignNick Ormerod and Nick Kidd
Fight DirectorJohn Waller
Dialect CoachJoan Washington

1987

Declan Donnellan's dark, spare and forceful production of Macbeth for Cheek by Jowl is technically the most sophisticated in the company's short history, using Arts Council development money and a co-production with York Theatre Royal to devise a show that's tourable but also large enough tot make an impact in a medium sized theatre like Winchester Theatre Royal where I saw it last Wednesday. The audience was about 80 percent older school children, bright, well dressed, buzzing away like mad. The heart sank.

No need. As the RSC has learned on its annual Natwest tour to part of the country where theatre seems seldom to reach, there are many simple tricks of the trade to secure the good faith and attention of audiences who may never have seen a play by Shakespeare before.

One of Mr Donnellan's is to quell the intermittent mutterings in the stalls by more fearsome, supernatural mutterings on stage. Another is to rouse the inattentive as in Chinese theatre, by loud thwacks on the drum. A third is to throw them one really juicy, contentious bone such as the bawling and tearful insertion of 'My Way' into Twelfth Night last winter, from which certain fastidious spirits and sensitive souls are recoiling still. It is the use to which such spectacular and rude graffiti are put that mark out Donnellan as a director of single minded purpose and power.

In Macbeth the Porter enjoys a change of sex. Anne White plays her as a foul mouthed cross between Peg Sliderskew, the vicious Scots derelict who does for Wackford Squeers at the end of Nicholas Nickleby and some last surviving roadie beached by the Bay City Rollers. Among those whom she drunkenly observes knocking at the gates of hell is 'a stockbroder who applied for a million BP share and coudna stop the cheque'.

When did you last hear an audience really laugh at this scene? They do here, and it lights with a lurid flare the brief, blood washing pause and narrow shaft of time between the murder of the King and its discovery. Duncan and Macduff are both played (and very well played) by the same actor, Dec McAleer so that justice follows hard upon the crime like a kind of resurrection as though the King were reborn as his own avenger within the very hour of death. Weirder things do actually happen in this great and fearful play and characters talk about them all the time.

Duncan here is blind, like the King in 'The Mahabharata' much given to brooking on the treachery of appearances and to running his fingers in questing Braille over the features of those arriving in court. Macduff sees perfectly but still blindly abandons his wife and children to their fate. Both men are guilty, at least in public, and sink to their knees in gabbles of Latin contrition.

We never learn what Duncan had to feel guilty about but in Malcolm (Timothy Walker) he leaves behind the inbred last of his line as Shakespeare intended; a stuttering psychotic virgin in steel rimmed spectacles. With such a Malcolm and Macduff the English scene is unusually strong.

Above all this Macbeth (Keith Bartlett) rides with a king of heroic and hysterical light headedness that cannot believe its good fortune and share is directly with the audience at every turn. Not so much guilt here and no tragedy either. Close cropped and ginger bristled, with pale eyes and a brilliant grin, Bartlett makes a disarming, pugilist, taking all the breaks that come; apparently transparent and legible, a villain concealing all because he has nothing to reveal . He is less good at building the great speeches and scrambles some of the more ringing lines, but he scorns the notion of ageing into a sere and yellow leaf and he recites the supernatural happening in the countryside like an aphrodisiac to arouse his wife (Leslee Udwin). She is a tremulous giggler turned on by the powers placed in her hands and when she is angry she smiles. They make a very sexy pair.

Cheek by Jowl's storytelling technique is one of the surest in British Theatre today: one scene hooks imperceptibly onto and may even overlap with the next. Apart from one candle there are not props: the mime is vivid and like all good mime, makes the audience work too. The visual motives of washing and touching sustain an urgent narrative landscape linking the magic of kingship to the cleansing of conscience and guilt. Above all, the out front, involving directness of the show, designed by Nick Ormerod and very well lit by him and Nick Kidd is the real reason why the buzz and the chatter in the Winchester came to a stop. Michael Ratcliffe, The Observer. 8 November 1987