Bloody and gorrific, Rupert Goold leaves his audience with images to remember. He also tempts fate just a little in his modernist, technologically-inclined, Stalin and so much more-inspired production of the Scottish Play, storming the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after successfully sold out runs and reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre and London’s Gielgud Theatre. Goold is touted as the hottest director in town—whatever the town—and his acclaim is not at all hindered by inviting heavy hitter/big name Patrick Stewart to be his leading man.
Stewart, who had an admirable career in the theatre before becoming captain of the Starship Enterprise for seven years (1987-1994), got that itch for Shakespearean theatre again in 2004. Now at age 67, Stewart has mesmerized audiences with his 2006 starring role in Goold’s RSC production of The Tempest, and now as Macbeth, Stewart battles a fate stronger than any Romulan.
That fate is his own.
Goold sets his production in the Soviet-era, drumming up even more emphasis on elements of paranoia already native to the play. Christine Rowland’s costuming is mostly military apropos, save the standout presence of Kate Fleetwood, who dresses her Lady Macbeth in silken robes, elegant gowns or fitted garb, and seduction throughout the greater part of the play. Set designer Anthony Ward creates a sterile stage; at first we have a hospital ward that gurneys the bloody and seizing opening screams of the “Bloody Sergeant” (Hywel John) who reports on Macbeth’s victories while his life and death are projected on the stage walls by way of a heartbeat monitor. Hospital ward turns industrial kitchen, with white tile walls and an abrupt coldness that serve to highlight the additional gushes of blood throughout the play. Video and Production Design by Lorna Heavey plays a large part on this stage, whether, for instance, calling up the bloody elevator in “The Shining” during Goold’s ingenious banquet scene(s), or running grotesque cartoons that feature eyeballs after eyeballs on a television that sits atop a refrigerator back stage left. It’s very Orwellian, or perhaps it draws upon Stalin’s NKVD (secret police). Goold also gives a nod to the 2006 Oscar winner, “The Lives of Others,” with this notion of being watched, and in a clever interpretation of the interrogation scene between Ross (Tim Treloar) and Lennox (Mark Rawlings), during which you half expect the whimpering Treloar to place his hands face down under his thighs before Lennox blackens his nose with a square punch.
Stewart’s Macbeth is tragic. Ambition plays a role, but his character is initially more weak than strong to his much younger wife’s ambition and manipulative sensuality. Lady Macbeth resides in this play as a two-dimensional character, and Fleetwood embodies it brilliantly, although she teeters on giving a little too much dimension to her role. It is Stewart who is here to change before our eyes. He transitions from worthy thane, to a husband who fears failing his wife, into a murderer, and into madman, and Stewart is sure to project that as a man, he is conscious of these declining transitions throughout. Stewart wins the power struggle with Fleetwood while in the kitchen, just before the banquet scene, when he literally gains the upper hand and leads Fleetwood to the feast.
Macbeth is also a man who, in this production, gives in to fate rather than to the sword of Macduff. When he speaks his final words in the midst of battle, “Hold, enough!” this Macbeth is winning on the battlefield, but he stares fate in the face as the sisters three enter the scene in silence and Macbeth gives in with a sort of mad relief.
Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady play the three witches, and they are most frightening because they are presented in alternate roles that ought to be anything but threatening. They are the nurses who tend to the dying soldier in the first scene. They work in the “Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” style kitchen, sweeping with large brooms and chopping with even larger butcher knives. They serve in the banquet scene, but the audience knows they are the always looming presence of fate mixed with evil. After Martin Turner, who delivers an impeccably skeptical and edgy Banquo, is murdered on a train rather than on some road to safety, and after a fluid and eerie scene transition from train car to banquet table, Goold offers his audience two versions of Banquo’s ghost. The first terrifies the hell out of us as we see what Macbeth sees. The second offers an alternate perspective on the same scene, as well as subtle differences that lead the audience to question their own minds right along with Macbeth. Although Stewart does a fine job seeing a ghost who is not there, it’s the witches who make the second rendition of the banquet scene so terrifying with some now you see them now you don’t knives behind their backs, and with looks on their faces that give the impression that all this has happened before, perhaps at the beginning of time when they weaved Macbeth’s fate.
Scott Handy plays a young and green Malcolm who does not seem ready to become a King, especially when he attempts to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland by seeming the tyrant versus the just ruler. Handy delivers his lines in such a way that let’s the audience know he is making the whole thing up, but only because Malcolm (not Handy) is a poor actor and can’t believably deliver himself as a tyrant or as an unjust man (all this taking place in a piano bar, for some reason). It’s Macduff, however, who turns the tables and teaches Malcomb what it means to be a man, as well as the importance of feeling. Michael Feast as Macduff delivers the most emotional scene of the play when he stops all action, one hand holding onto the chair seated to his left. He lets out two breaths that seem to be his last in life, and he feels the death of his family, of all his “pretty chickens,” as a man. And their deaths are gruesome, staged as a chaotic nightmare, with just a flash of the horror that takes place.
Also memorable is the Porter. Christopher Patrick Nolan plays the Porter as well as Macbeth’s attendant, Seyton. Both characters are memorable, and both are just plain evil. Stewart beckons Seyton three times (pronouncing the name as “Satan”) to come and deliver news and ready his armor. Seyton embodies the same silent evil presence as the witches, and it makes his as frightening as hellfire. It also makes him an interesting character, as this so called “Satan” is, here, at the fall of the play, serving Macbeth. The Porter serves up his own bit of evil, literally urinating in the sink right before our eyes, and masturbating in front of Lady Macduff and her young children. He won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Nor will many of the images Goold offers his audience. This production is dark and bloody, and it is both in your face and occasionally, beautifully subtle.
Goold mentions in one of his many interviews that you may not feel the decadence of tragedy at every show. There might be that coughing in the audience that breaks it, or that cell phone that rings. There was something in the theatre on my night that broke it, and it seems as though the cast knew it as they took their bows to an audience that somewhat flaccidly stood in ovation. This is contrary to other nights, I’m told. Much coughing my night, and there was that odd woman next to me who, several times, nodded off, and then complained about not being able to hear the actors on stage. Perhaps she awoke during the Sisters' not quite in unison rap scene. If that's the case, I would concur. Hence the biggest tragedy on this particular night was that it was broken. Perhaps it was fate. My fate, that I can somehow see through and make my own projections that this production is something greater than I’ll ever know.