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.
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?
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?