Here's a production full of “night's black agents”, literally throwing dark shadows across the stage. Declan Donnellan's fast-paced interpretation allied to Nick Ormerod's stark, monochrome set emphasises the darkness within the play, with little contrasting hues.
This is a stripped-down Macbeth, both linguistically (there's no “Double, double, toil and trouble… “) and materially – props are kept to a minimum. By removing the supernatural elements – the 'witches' are voiced by members of company– it's made clear that the Macbeths' murderous desires are deeply held within them. While it's an intriguing concept, it doesn't quite explain Banquo's hearing of the prophecies too.
Will Keen's Macbeth has little of the martial spirit that the other characters describe. His little spurts of nervous laughter are strangely disconcerting but most distracting is an odd occasional hand wiggle, akin to someone tickling a trout, that he uses to emphasise certain lines.
Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth has none of the irritating gestures, but there are some strange vocal inflections. Like her husband, she seems to be highly-strung, full of nervous tics, as if already possessed of guilt, even before Duncan's murder.
There are several stunning scenes however: the banquet scene is superbly staged, with the appearance of Banquo a triumph for lighting designer Judith Greenwood. Even more chilling is the way that Macbeth and his wife sit down after the dispersal of the thanes, the conversation sounding like a couple discussing the weather and serving as a pertinent reminder of, in Hannah Arendt's memorable phrase, the banality of evil.
And before the final battle, Macbeth holds his wife in his hands, while waiting for the English onslaught, then, when her death is announced, she walks away. It's a devastating scene, an indication of how the two are bound together and of the powerful imagination that seizes Macbeth.
There are strong performances from Ryan Kiggell as Banquo, David Caves as a particularly good Macduff, and a spiky cameo from Kelly Hooten as a female porter, although it does appear to have come from a different production.
Donnellan has done well to capture the spirit of male camaraderie – these are, after all, men whose relationships are forged in the heat of battle and there's a strong whiff of testosterone wafting over the castle walls.
But for all the flashes of brilliance – the sort of thing that we take for granted in Cheek by Jowl shows – his production is strangely disjointed. There's little sense of either the ambition that drives Macbeth or the terror of his regime. Donnellan gives us a dark journey into man's heart and the horrors that can be found there and, while a compelling visual spectacle, some of the full impact of Macbeth's journey from war hero to toppled tyrant is lost.