Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart has arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from London, where it was widely acclaimed as “definitive” and “the experience of a lifetime.” Though the gifted Mr. Goold’s opening scene is brilliantly unnerving, I’m not so sure that a Macbeth that doesn’t go on to terrify you can be one for the ages.
“All is the fear and nothing is the love” is the keynote of Shakespeare’s dark, monstrous tragedy of political ambition and desire. But the more the director piled on the ghoulish scenes of butchered corpses accompanied by thundering sound and light effects, spooky smoke, video and film and echo chambers for the witches, the less scary I found the production.
I know a lowbrow slasher movie when I see one. And so does Mr. Goold, who happily admits to being influenced by the genre. Not that he doesn’t have more refined sources. The director acknowledges being inspired by the walls oozing blood in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But the Kubrickian video in Macbeth doesn’t scare us in the least; it looks like bad wallpaper.
The 35-year-old Mr. Goold isn’t making an innovative statement with Macbeth. For one thing, he’s decking it out with quite well-known images from movies (good or bad). Nothing new about that, either. But the “borrowings” only take us further away from the nightmare soul of Shakespeare’s hallucinatory tragedy.
The production—known as the “Stalinist Macbeth”—also uses documentary film of Stalin’s armies on parade projected onto the walls of the set. But those all-purpose images of totalitarian power are in turn very familiar; they no longer disturb us as the symbol of global terror; and clips of Stalin’s May Day propaganda-fest have already been used in other stage productions (Simon McBurney’s among them).
Alas, there are other stagy effects that hover on the edge of kitsch—Macbeth’s severed head (a replica of Mr. Stewart’s) held up absurdly at the close, glistening bright red like a candied apple; or the lapse when the three witches dressed as nurses break out into a rap version of “Double, double, toil and trouble” as body bags twitch rhythmically on slabs in a mortuary.
For those of us who believe in a theater of natural magic and the primacy of language, Mr. Goold’s staging comes across as frantically typical of sensory overload. His Macbeth is rarely quiet—and when it is, it’s a relief and the outcome is memorable.
Only silence is appropriate during Act IV when Macduff, the exiled future king, receives news that Macbeth has butchered his wife and children. Even words must die. They’re no use to grieving Macduff, played by the fine veteran actor Michael Feast; he cannot “give sorrow words.” When Macduff is told of the slaughter, there’s an unbearably moving, long, uncomprehending silence until finally he asks, “My children, too?”
THE PRODUCTION IS set in the 1950’s, mostly in a white-tiled military hospital and a kitchen (which is new). That brilliant opening hospital scene promising so much had the three weird sisters urgently nursing a horribly wounded soldier as he struggles to give us news of the battle and of Macbeth’s heroic feats. Then, as he lays on a table gasping for life, the nurses cut off his oxygen supply and kill him.
Well! I thought that was just great and sat forward in my seat anticipating astonishing things. But whatever way the industrial set (by Anthony Ward) is used—as hospital, kitchen or vague battlefield—it amounts to a peculiarly sterile gimmick. The bleak hospital setting worked well in the dynamic first scenes, but visiting royalty isn’t usually received in back kitchens. Nor do kings make ham sandwiches for themselves and guests. (What are servants for?)
The anonymous, steely set, with its rusty radiators, bucket and mop, and TV atop a steel cabinet/fridge, is a bleak, postmodern eyesore. There’s a cage elevator that performs old-fashioned disappearing tricks accompanied by sound effects in the dated sci-fi manner of the magic telephone box in the BBC’s venerable Dr. Who. There’s also an old sink prominently displayed and lit. It must be a motif. In a witty early touch of foreshadowing, Lady Macbeth (the suitably vile Kate Fleetwood) washes her hands in the sink, and will again when the tap gushes blood. Her husband also washes his hands there, lest we miss the point. And the ridiculously ghoulish Porter takes a piss in it, facing the audience.