Patrick Stewart is a great actor giving a less-than-great performance as Macbeth, in the Chichester Festival Theatre Production that’s currently on Broadway in a limited engagement. With the exception of a few electrically charged moments, in Stewart’s playing Shakespeare’s tyrant seems mostly tired. This is a valid interpretation — Macbeth’s middle-of-the-night crimes have the effect of robbing their perpetrator of rest, just as they rob his victims of life — but a plodding, sleep-deprived Macbeth leaves a big gap at the center of this production.
Even before his regicide-induced insomnia, this Macbeth’s desire for the throne frequently wavers (though once he gains it he’s determined to hold on to the bitter end). Certainly he’s less enthused about the prospect of kinghood than Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth is about her impending queenhood. In this production, the couple’s age difference (sixty-something Stewart is paired with the thirtyish Fleetwood) helps emphasize her activity and his passivity, her desire for a kingdom to rule for decades to come versus his desire for a bit of rest after many long and hard-fought military campaigns.
Fleetwood has some powerful moments, such as the can’t-miss sleepwalking scene (“Out, damned spot!”), but the vital connection that should charge the air between her and Stewart is only fitful. Nor is there much sexual heat between the couple, despite a few bits of graphic groping. While Macbeth as the passive pawn of his bloodthirsty, single-minded wife makes sense as a reading of the play, there’s little evidence in this production of the libidinal hold that a young wife would use to manipulate an older husband.
Even with this gap at its center, this production, directed by Rupert Goold with stunning set and costume designs by Anthony Ward, does offer several powerful moments. Set in an industrial-looking, white-tiled kitchen that’s half morgue, half slaughterhouse, with Soviet-era costumes to remind us of Stalinist tyrants ordering killings as casually as they order lunch, Goold drenches this bloody play in plenty of blood.
It’s a concept that creates some thought-provoking connections. The Weird Sisters who set Macbeth on his path to destruction are indeed sisters, as the Brits call hospital nurses. Played by Sophie Hunter, Niamh McGrady, and Polly Frame, they set the chilling tone at the start when they quiet a badly wounded soldier who has just delivered the play’s first important piece of exposition. As they plunge a huge hypodermic needle into his neck, they might just be giving him a sedative — or perhaps, having served his purpose, he’s going to be quiet for good. The sisters’ motives remain appropriately ambiguous throughout.
The hospital/morgue imagery returns in Act IV, Scene 1, when the witches wheel out white plastic body bags on steel gurneys to give more misleading information to Macbeth. Wriggling like trapped insects, these faceless soothsayers provide Macbeth with the false confidence that he is invincible. The creepily effective video and projection design by Lorna Heavey, in conjunction with Adam Cork’s sound design, make these and other scenes convincingly horrifying, even to an audience numbed by the graphic horrors of Saw, Hostel, and their cinematic ilk.
The Soviet parallel also illuminates Act III, Scene 6, a two-man scene that exists mainly for exposition. Goold turns it into a gulag-style interrogation, with poor befuddled Ross (Tim Treloar), the ultimate power-worshiping toady, terrified and tied to a chair until he blabs all he knows about Malcolm’s whereabouts (the murdered king’s son has fled to the English court, a crucial piece of intel for the usurper Macbeth). These and other scenes remind us that torture and fear are the tools of all ages — from medieval Scotland to the U.S.S.R. to Guantanamo Bay.
Goold’s other extremely effective staging is in the famous banquet scene (Act III, Scene 4), when an increasingly haunted Macbeth sees the just-murdered Banquo’s bloody ghost. Before the apparition, played by Martin Turner, strides onto the dining table, Macbeth is at the height of his tyrannical power, reveling in both petty power plays and his dinner guests’ forced laughter at his feeble jokes, like some egomaniacal CEO and his cowering board.
Banquo’s appearance puts Macbeth off his game, and after the intermission we see the scene as others see it, with Stewart staring at empty air and jabbering to his unseen victim. It’s not the first time we suspect that Macbeth himself may be off his rocker, and that the play may be more about psychological paranoia than about supernatural forces. This hospital could be an insane asylum — another place where tyrants often toss inconvenient political opponents.
Finally, in Act V, Scene 4, Stewart’s fatigue connects with the character’s. Hearing of Lady Macbeth’s death, he delivers the famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy slowly, as a tired old man regretting life and preparing to accept death — until the soldier in him responds to the battle cry for one last campaign.
All in all, this is an uneven Macbeth. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, it’s received critical raves. It’s likely that critics and audiences are so enamored of Stewart, the once and future Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, that they are overlooking his, and the production’s, shortcomings. But whether you’re playgoing or simply stargazing, you’re likely to find something scary at this Scottish play.
At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th St., NYC through May 24. Tickets available at telecharge.com.