Making his professional American Shakespearean debut in the title role in Macbeth this month at BAM is British actor Will Keen, who’s performing the Scottish Play as part of Cheek by Jowl, a stalwart London-based company devoted to reexamining classic plays, usually with an eye to distilling a text to its essence, namely its language.
Cheek by Jowl have taken to BAM’s stage a number of times in the past, most recently with a production of Cymbeline in 2007, and the current run of Macbeth marks the U.S. premiere of this, their latest production. Graciously, Keen took time out of a busy day of preparations to speak with Exeunt about his experience at the helm of this interpretation of one of the Bard’s most well-known plays.
For starters, Keen, whose diminutive, generally soft-spoken demeanor carries a certain charm, explained the general premise of this stripped-down production. “It’s just the human body and the voice in the space – no props at all,” he said. “If you want to get theoretical about it, it’s a study in the power of the word, what the word can make. I can’t think of a more appropriate way of doing this play, which is all about how when someone says the word you’ll be king. It answers the suggestion already in your mind, and when you mention it to your wife, you can’t then go back on it, because the word’s already out there.”
To be a part of a Cheek by Jowl production is, in essence, to be a part of a cohesive unit. Though this Macbeth features only simple scenic design elements, namely elongated crates, by Nick Ormerod, there’s an overall emphasis on using the playing space as a field for the company of actors to create the play almost from scratch. Without weaponry or elaborate sets and costumes, much of the action is choreographed by director Declan Donnellan and associate director Jane Gibson to indicate action with minimal encumbrance.
Keen, who’s previously worked with Cheek by Jowl on a production of Middleton’s The Changeling, describes the process of taking on a Cheek by Jowl production as a “dangerously addictive” one. “As an actor they empower you to a really tremendous extent,” he told me, “in the sense that they always put the actor absolutely at the center of the work. It’s not the case that you arrive on day one, and there’s a model box and your costume, and everything’s decided. The piece is created around what happens in the rehearsal room, which of course means that you feel incredibly strongly about the piece as being a part of you, because what you bring is what’s going to make it. It therefore creates an in incredibly strong company, because people feel very intensely about how much they believe in the work.”
With a resume that spans new work, Shakespeare, Restoration drama, and musicals, Keen tries his best to remain a versatile actor. “Of course, as an actor, people are always trying to see you in a certain way and see that you provide that thing, so you have to in a way, as much as you can, try to second guess that and try to find ways of doing things which aren’t necessarily the thing that would lead on from the previous thing, so that people keep thinking ‘oh, he can do that too.’”