First Night: Macbeth, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London

Mind games and murder
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are no visible knives, gore, cauldrons or fateful letters. The witches are reduced to female voices that emerge from the silhouettes of the fully assembled twelve-strong company. Yet by the power of paradox and strong theatrical suggestion, Declan Donnellan's superb Cheek by Jowl version of Macbeth has a terrible and transfixing presence.

Like a cross between psychodrama and fierce, fluid modern dance, the production creates a creepily variable sense of time. There are transitions that move with the speed of a slasher's knife; episodes that seem to emerge from the foregoing scenes as though they had been eerily embedded within them like spies; and soliloquies that impart a sickened sensation of temporal suspension. The actors, in their uniform black t-shirts hurtle across Nick Ormerod's spacious, austerely bare set or freeze-frame expressively under the sculptural, noir-like lighting of Jane Greenwood.

For Donnellan, the witches are evidently an emanation of pre-existing guilty desire – visible to Banquo, too, because we all share the same susceptibilities, though some of may choose not to act on them. The production's emphasis is less on the victims of the Macbeths' evil than on the horror of being the Macbeths. For some, this will seem a whitewash of the Stalin-like behaviour of the hero once he becomes king. But Donnellan has listened to the poetry and presents the waking nightmare of the couple's lives after the initial murder and the unravelling of their marriage with a harrowing pathos. Wiry and highly strung, Anastasia Hille's brilliant Lady Macbeth is a woman who, from the start, has to override psychological fragility with a hideously strained firmness of purpose. With his compact physique and humane demeanour, Will Keen's excellent Macbeth shows you a troubled introvert who, in order to survive and preserve his sanity has to retreat into dreadful self-dissociation.

The physicality of the staging is always in the service of psychological penetration. There's a wonderful moment when Lady Macbeth welcomes the (here blind) King Duncan and their outstretched arms form a kind of threshold under which the soliloquising Macbeth ducks as if gaining entry to the next phase of his plot quite literally through a gesture of sheer sacrilegious fraudulence by his wife.

Though in the real world she is severed from him by her madness, in this production Lady Macbeth remains a presence to him. He delivers his later speeches of drained recognition directly to her, wheezing with ironic laughter and stroking her face until the announcement of her death when she matter-of-factly exits leaving him holding only air.

The drunken porter scene is enlivened in its violating comedy by the fact that here the porter is a squiffy female Scot in a tartan mini-skirt who has trouble with her intercom and insists on doing a security check of the visitors with a bleeping body scanner. Highly recommended.