Well, here it is -- the prequel to Dunsinane. William Shakespeare obviously thinks there is a quick theatrical buck to be made by writing a play about the dead tyrant whose ghost hovers over David Greig's classic drama about military occupation. Obviously he'll go far.
The hallmark of Declan Donnellan's style as a director is subtraction rather than addition. He pares away the props and theatrical paraphernalia, leaving us with just the actors and the text, though helped a lot by lighting and music. Less really is more, as his previous productions have proved, including an outstanding Troilus and Cressida a couple of years ago at the Barbican. This time Cheek by Jowl are not in the main Barbican theatre but next door in the Silk Street Theatre, which is part of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It's an excellent venue with a big stage, which Donnellan knows exactly how to use to maximum effect. The key to this excellent production is the ability of the leading players to draw in the audience as participants, by coming straight to the front of the stage and making eye contact during the soliloquies. Will Keen (looking more and more a dead ringer for Lenin) and Anastasia Hille are an excellent murdering couple, and the absence of military flim-flam brings a tighter focus on their relationship. I missed Patrick Stewart's Macbeth but I've seen lots of good productions, including a terrific one by the RSC with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter. This is up among the best, and it shows that a minimalist approach can work if it's done intelligently. Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod omit blood and weapons of any kind, and leave the audience to use their imagination. There are lots of really exciting and original touches in this ensemble production, with the witches keeping their female voices but remaining unseen as part of a chorus lost in semi-darkness. The violence is balletic rather than theatrical, and Banquo's murder is played without the murderers. Macduff's family is despatched in much the same way, as is Macbeth himself. Bodies jerk and spasm and collapse, but the weapons that kill them are unseen. Sometimes Donnellan varies his approach to great effect, as when Banquo's ghost suddenly appears upstage, bathed in light, in the banquet scene. There's a lot of nervous hollow laughter in this play, as when Lady Macbeth attempts to make a joke out of her husband's 'affliction'. Perhaps the murder of Duncan (played very effectively as a blind man who is led around by the arms) could have benefited from some cold steel, to point up the contrast between the imaginary dagger that Macbeth sees and the real thing. The tension-breaking scene with the porter (female) is played with great gusto. I've seen Keen and Hille in lots of other plays, but never have they been so effective. This production will, I expect, be touring to Omsk, Tomsk and lots of other places. If you can't see Dunsinane, Macbeth the prequel is a pretty good substitute.