New productions of Macbeth are exciting to behold, not least because the play is probably Shakespeare’s most accessible to the average playgoer. The play’s witchcraft and mysterious prophecies are thrilling. Its tale of an ambitious man and woman driven to power by evil means is timeless. The circumstances of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s journey, as Shakespeare imagined them, never seem to leave us, no matter how long ago we may have read the play.
During the first week of the Chichester Festival Theatre production’s new run at the Lyceum Theatre, Patrick Stewart lived up to every accolade he’s received since performing the title role at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year.
As scholars have noted, the play’s language elegantly blends the sublime and the proverbial. Stewart understands Shakespeare’s poetry and how it should resonate in our ears. As the sinister Lady Macbeth and her husband’s cohort in crime, the much younger Kate Fleetwood appeared in phenomenally fine form. These two fine actors realized the dark conspiracy between Shakespeare’s most famous married couple with a poise that’s not always achieved on American stages.
The idea behind British director Rupert Goold’s jarring, forties-era staging seems fascinating. Goold’s filmic approach erases Shakespeare’s overt Celtic coloring and plays up its apocalyptic overtones. Shakespeare’s hag-like Weird Sisters are transformed into ominous, syringe-wielding hospital nurses. And though the play’s setting predates 1066, Goold situates feudal warlords Duncan and Macbeth in a nightmarish setting against movie footage that envisions the corruption under Stalin or Mussolini.
The set consists of a drab brick wall, interrupted by an old-style, cage-enclosed elevator that resembles a modern dungeon or torture chamber. At stage right up high, a small TV comes on and off intermittently. Fascist-era film footage and flickers of white noise provide the set variation that marks changes in scene.
Goold’s opening cleverly re-imagines an early scene involving the bloody sergeant who reports on Macbeth’s bravery during a fight against the rebel Macdonwald. Oddly, the wounded sergeant appears to die at the hands of one of the Weird “nurses,” who does the deed by injection. Like Roman Polanski and other filmmakers who exploited the play’s gruesome elements, Goold’s use of the scene is effective, though Shakespeare didn’t write it exactly this way.
Having the wounded sergeant die in the operating room is also a novel way to suggest the ambiguity of the Weird Sisters in general – do they simply predict fate, or are we to suppose that they actually influence it?
Today directors are eager to free Shakespeare from the context of long-ago periods and productions that strive for historical accuracy. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. Even the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s venerable acting company, performed on stage in the contemporary Elizabethan garb of doublet and hose.
But because Macbeth focuses on the psychology of evil and unbridled ambition in a story that resonates so strongly with modern playgoers, it can be dangerous when directors take huge risks with its landscape. In the show’s first half, Goold takes some interesting license with Shakespeare’s script. But he infuses the play too early with the dread of apocalyptic horror that should come upon us more gradually, as Macbeth gets carried away by his “vaulting ambition.”
In the show’s second half, this production’s tricks, quirks, and made-up musical interludes detract from the familiar elegance of Shakespeare’s character study. The first act ends as Macbeth spies Banquo’s ghost at a dinner party. After the intermission the scene is repeated with silences inserted where dialogue had been. This appears novel, but you’re left wondering why such a powerful scene needs to be interrupted by a bathroom break. Moreover, Goold’s excessively vulgar interpretation of a deranged Porter strays off the mark of Shakespeare’s page, and takes unnecessary liberties with the role.
By the time Lady Macbeth does herself in and Macbeth faces certain doom in this show, and by the time Stewart’s Macbeth tells us that life is “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing,” Shakespeare’s profound message is blunted by Goold’s nonstop celluloidal imagery of gloom and doom.
Despite the production’s uneven quality, key roles in this ensemble were performed well by a highly talented cast – Martin Turner’s Banquo and Byron Jenning’s Duncan are especially adept. In the role of Macduff, Michael Feast is excellent. Scott Handy (Malcolm) and Ben Carpenter (Donalbain) nicely captured the predicament that Duncan’s sons find themselves in after their father is murdered under Macbeth’s roof.
The Chichester Festival Theatre Production of Macbeth is scheduled to run at the Lyceum Theatre through May 24.Powered by Sidelines