Patrick Stewart Stars in Rupert Goold’s Slasher Scottish Play

This is a production that leaves very little to the imagination. It’s overstuffed with business—the churchy hymn ostentatiously performed by the entire company like fervent, shadowy Benedictine monks; the banquet scene unnecessarily played twice from different perspectives; the three witches transformed into attentive waitresses at the banquet while holding gleaming knives behind their backs; the silly dance that follows with the mop, and so on.

Why won’t they let Shakespeare speak for himself? Macbeth is renowned for its hurtling speed; it’s the shortest play in the canon. Yet Mr. Goold’s production runs for a bloated three hours.

 

PATRICK STEWART IS a most accomplished classical actor whom greatness has eluded. I remember a number of his early yeoman performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company (long before he became Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation), and even in those days no British actor declaimed quite like Mr. Stewart. He’s always possessed “the voice” that can rise and soar to be heard two blocks away. His theatrical, sometimes showy style reminded me then, as it still does, of his celebrated contemporary, Ian McKellen. Even their accent is the same: Both were raised in the north of England.

Today, it’s as if Mr. Stewart is living—and thriving—in his own time warp as he belatedly tackles the leading Shakespeare roles he might have gone on to play had he slogged on at the RSC. First Prospero, followed by Antony, and now Macbeth. These are heroic gestures: He’s putting himself to the fire each time.

But a 67-year-old Macbeth changes everything. An elderly Macbeth—even a fit-looking one, as Mr. Stewart is—is at odds with the play. Shakespeare’s sleepless Macbeths are a young couple on the ruthless ascent. And what evil they do, they do together in the cause of unspecified “greatness.” Even with his wavering fatal flaw of “vaulting ambition,” would this man who’s already lived his life—who’s long since arrived—self-destruct in thrall to a nagging trophy wife?

It happens.

But we feel too much for Mr. Stewart’s Macbeth, particularly in his excellent early soliloquies of paranoid terror and doubt. As an actor, he can’t resist his showy tricks (the distractingly delicious
sandwich he makes on meticulously sliced black bread while instructing the two assassins would do credit to Dean and DeLuca). But as a merciless sociopath, he’s too sympathetic even as he refuses our sympathy.

And yet … I felt there was legitimacy to it. Imagine this unimaginable turn of events: What if John McCain, once in office (at age 71), began to behave like the Macbeth of Acts III, IV and V?

What if this apparently decent man (a war hero like Macbeth), whose flaw is a quick temper, falls in love with power for its own sake? Or what if—heaven forbid—Mr. and Mrs. Obama turn out to be our Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth? Is it conceivable? And which story in this invented game would horrify you most?

“The time is free,” proclaims Macduff triumphantly at the end of Macbeth, when the natural order has been restored. But the time is never free, or safe. In the cosmic turbulence of the play, Shakespeare is ultimately asking, can we ever be certain who our leaders are and what they will become?