The nasty, brutish production that opened on Broadway last night is not only a "Macbeth" to remember - it's a "Macbeth" you'll never be able to forget.
It leaves you full of horrors, yet those horrors, lifted by Shakespeare's poetry, have acquired a special moral force.
Rupert Goold's stark staging with a magnificent Patrick Stewart as the hellbent Scots king started at England's Chichester Festival, journeyed to London's West End, then to BAM and now to the Lyceum Theatre, where its run is scheduled to end May 24.
Goold's idea to turn the king into a kind, modern despot isn't original. Rather, it's the manner in which it's done that is so remarkable and convincing, keeping its focus on the tragic ambition of this man and his partner-in-blood, Lady Macbeth.
Goold has said that he found his starting point in the murderous machinations of Josef Stalin. But it might just as well have been Mussolini or Hitler.
Goold's brilliance is not in time or place but method - dissecting the play's pathological madness better than I've ever seen.
His radical production choices, so wholeheartedly embraced by his cast, offers a Clouzot-like film noir environment (backed up with cool, black and dazzling efficiency by his designer, Anthony Ward) which runs from field hospital to abatoir to kitchen, from shabby banquet table to darkling wood.
Shabbiness is everywhere. Macbeth's cowardice at the old King's murder is less due to scruples than a queasy stomach.
Still, he can bluster well enough once his hand has been forced by his wife and they usurp their throne of blood.
The general level of performance of this all-British cast - only the estimable Byron Jennings is American - is superb.
The 67-year-old Stewart, after an unlikely but memorable stint in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," has reinvented himself from an admirable character actor to one of the stars of the English-speaking theater.
But he's done nothing to match this Macbeth, a legendary bear-trap of a role for actors from Alec Guinness to Kelsey Grammer. In Shakespeare's fastest moving tragedy, Stewart runs a glittering course from start to finish.
He does everything - from carving up a sandwich to falling into a fit - with an underlying menace. This is no small villain. Nor is it a villain (and this is the tripping point for most Macbeths) who fears being ugly.
There are other fine portrayals here - the vivid yet ice-cold Lady Macbeth of Kate Fleetwood, and the vengeful, tortured fury of Michael Feast's angry shout of a Macduff. And there are many worthwhile cameos. Here is a "Macbeth" that no one in his senses - or even slightly out of them - should miss.
Rupert Goold’s good and nasty interpretation has enough flash, blood and mutilated bodies to satisfy a Wes Craven fan. Set within a joyless, stark environment that resembles nothing so much as a morgue, this traveling production is also replete with eye-boggling technical effects that summon the Age of Stalin as imagined by George Orwell in “1984.”
Still, all this sound and fury would signify, if not nothing, then yet another politically minded evening of Shakespeare in period drag were it not for the brilliant performance at its center.
What makes this one a must-see is Mr. Stewart’s thrilling recognition that his character is as close kin to the fatally introspective Hamlet as he is to power-wielding men of ill will like Richard III. His performance is the first I have seen to realize completely what the scholar Harold Bloom means when he calls this play “a tragedy of the imagination.”
Small wonder that Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood, excellent and original) — willful, canny and hard-wired for success — sees danger signs whenever her husband’s gaze goes hazy.
This Macbeth has been cursed by a depth of vision, an ability to conjure up the rippling consequences of every action he undertakes that eventually leads him to the bleak plains of existential emptiness. Mr. Goold and Mr. Stewart make it clear that Macbeth is really killed not by Macduff but by his own willingness to be killed. It’s suicide by nihilism.
A successful, ambitious actor is likely to be drawn at a certain stage in his career to the role of Macbeth, then at some later date to King Lear.
At 67, Patrick Stewart would seem more ripe for the latter — that is, until you see him on stage in director Rupert Goold's overstated but fascinating Macbeth (* * * out of four), which opened Tuesday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.
Shakespeare's Scottish play was last staged on Broadway, very briefly, with Kelsey Grammer in 2000. That production, a critical flop, also starred an actor best known for his work on television. Stewart, aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and Professor Xavier of the X-Men film series), is more than 20 years older than the ex-Frasier star was then, and began performing Shakespeare before Grammer entered puberty.
But in Goold's production, which premiered at the U.K.'s Chichester Festival Theatre and later ran in London and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Stewart looks as lean and spry as a decathlete. He's an older Macbeth, certainly, but a well-preserved one. As Goold has set the tragedy in some unspecified Stalinist nation, we don't see the British actor in kilts, but he could wear them without humiliating himself.
His Macbeth has good reason to stay fit: namely, the missus, played by the physically stunning Kate Fleetwood as a trophy wife on speed. When this Lady Macbeth, galled by her hubby's reluctance to commit the first of what will be a smorgasbord of murders, tells him that she would "have pluck'd my nipple" from her child's "boneless gums, and dash'd his brains out," you believe her. You also believe that Stewart would resort to similarly extreme measures to make her happy.
As if one hysterical, high-maintenance woman weren't enough, Macbeth must also contend with the three Witches — played by Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter and Niamh McGrady — whom Goold presents as nurses, servants and, at one point, rappers. They don't don hip-hop garb, but given the conceptual and sensual sprawl of this production, enhanced by Lorna Heavey's post-psychedelic video and projected images and Adam Cork's alternately ominous and cacophonous music and sound design, it wouldn't have been surprising if they had.
Yet these flashy features, plus high-pitched performances by Michael Feast as Macduff and Christopher Patrick Nolan as the demonic porter, are miraculously put in context by Stewart's witty, nuanced work, which reveals Macbeth as an intelligent, rational person driven to madness by outside forces and his own violent transgressions. There is something of Lear — and Hamlet, too — in this portrait of a thoughtful, corruptible man.
Stewart is too old to even consider tackling Shakespeare's great Dane, of course; in fact, he's scheduled to play Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, in a new Royal Shakespeare Company production this summer. But I look forward to his Lear.
Pathos is an essential element of roles like Lear and Hamlet, but Macbeth, not so much. Yet one of the qualities that resonates most unexpectedly in Patrick Stewart's interpretation of the butchering tyrant is the mental frailty of a man overpowered and undone by his own ruthless ambition. Exactly how well Stewart is served by the blood-soaked flamboyance of Rupert Goold's overburdened production will be a matter of taste, but the rising-star Brit director's "Macbeth" is as cinematic as it is boldly theatrical. It may not always elucidate the plot or characters to best advantage but it sure keeps you glued.
A hit last year at the Chichester Festival Theater and subsequently in the West End, the production arrives for a six-week Brooklyn Academy of Music season laden with awards and every superlative London critics could fling at it. (Subsequent to this review, "Macbeth" has transferred to Broadway, opening April 8 at the Lyceum for a limited engagement through May 24. Byron Jennings as Duncan and a Scottish doctor, and Rachel Ticotin as Lady Macduff have joined the cast, replacing the actors listed here.)
Goold's take on one of Shakespeare's most violent plays is to make it even more horrific, freely mixing bone-chilling supernatural shivers with vicious warmongering, Machiavellian politics, psychological unease and technological intrusions.
It's an aggressively contemporary "Macbeth," depicting the usurper-king and his black-hearted wife (Kate Fleetwood) as highly evolved social animals, decanting wine, passing out canapes and entertaining with the same steely sense of purpose they bring to plotting murders. Naturally, that should heighten the schadenfreude of the couple's downfall. But despite his despicable nature, the death of Stewart's Macbeth nonetheless registers as a human loss, not just the elimination of a power-mad oppressor. This is no mean feat when the character ultimately is paraded out as a severed head slick with gore -- a choice forewarned in every nasty flourish that's come before it.
Continuing a long-established trend of darkening the political overtones of Shakespeare's tragedies by dropping them into Orwellian totalitarian states, Goold shifts the Scottish play to an Eastern European setting at the height of the Cold War. Designer Anthony Ward's austere set is a grimy, white-tiled expanse that effectively serves as infirmary, kitchen, morgue, banquet hall and even a train compartment in an audacious reimagining of the murder of Banquo (Martin Turner).
A single video monitor feeds projected images across the rear wall that range from vine-like bloody tendrils to huge, Stalinist military assemblies, and a smoke-filled, double-gated industrial elevator disgorges its passengers -- flesh and spirit -- into this living hell.
The production's single most imaginative stroke -- and the one that sets its tone -- is the transformation of the three witches into sinister nurses, initially seen tending to a prophetic wounded soldier in the opening scene, before it's revealed they are offering not assistance but a hastened demise. More omnipresent than in straightforward productions, the "weird sisters" also serve as kitchen hands and servants.
Impressively choreographed by movement director Georgina Lamb, and rarely seen without a dagger, meat cleaver, hacksaw or some such instrument of carnage in hand, these petite figures in their crisply starched uniforms and with their disembodied, electro-enhanced voices seem to have stepped right out of a '70s horror movie. There are shades of Dario Argento, George A. Romero and vintage David Cronenberg, along with echoes of Lars von Trier's "The Kingdom" and frequent splashes of bloody Tarantino-esque excess.
Goold stages the "Toil and trouble" incantation as a zombie rap, with J-Horror static playing across the back wall and Adam Cork's dense soundscape working overtime as the witches draw their deadly predictions out of body-bagged corpses on mortuary slabs. Mining a similar undead aesthetic, the often interminable porter's scene is sexed up by having Christopher Patrick Nolan writhing and hissing like a lascivious ghoul.
All this is undeniably transfixing and makes for non-stop visual, visceral spectacle, atmospherically saturated in Howard Harrison's eerie, hard-edged lighting. What it doesn't always do is serve the play. Goold appears to have missed the memo that "Macbeth" is the swift Shakespeare. Stretching the drama out to three full hours, the director's embellishments often distract from the essence of a scene or dilute the characters' motivations, layering on creepy-cool effects in a style that's more show-offy than illuminating.
And sure, it's hypnotic to watch these vile climbers performing simple domestic tasks, such as Lady Macbeth retrieving a chocolate layer cake from the refrigerator or hubby making a cheese and pickle sandwich. But the nagging suspicion arises repeatedly that Goold doesn't believe the text alone can sustain audience attention.
Some touches add texture, such as replaying the appearance of Banquo's ghost twice, immediately before and after intermission, showing the apparition to the audience the first time and only to Macbeth the second, as his dinner guests look on in alarmed perplexity. Reworking the interrogation of Ross (Tim Treloar) as a torture scene also is a smart stroke, and the convergence of Macbeth and his killers on the Macduff family is a coldly terrifying image. Elsewhere, however, Goold appears to have ignored the warning from Macbeth's own lips about "sound and fury signifying nothing."
The theatrical pyrotechnics calm down somewhat in the second act, allowing the full force of some terrific performances to be revealed. Notable among them, Michael Feast's Macduff is intensely moving when learning of the slaughter of his wife and children, his devastated silence sputtering slowly into rage; Suzanne Burden strikes a fine balance of indignation and fear in Lady Macduff; and Scott Handy's genteel but resolute manner makes his Malcolm a worthy successor to the contested throne.
But the key casting of course is the Macbeths themselves, and the age difference between Fleetwood and Stewart of what appears to be about three decades adds fascinating nuances. Slinking around in Ward's '50s-chic wardrobe, with lips like a fresh scar, Lady Macbeth here is the most dangerous kind of trophy wife, her jaw set in a permanent state of tense hunger as she goads her husband to action. Fleetwood is equally compelling later, when her cruel scheming gives way to guilt and madness.
Stewart is somewhat older than the traditional take on the title character, giving his brutal bid for power a suggestion of resentment at being a valiant, long-serving warrior overdue for leadership. He starts out relaxed and almost affably chatty, his thirst for advancement fueled by his wife. But there are affecting moments of befuddlement in his performance, becoming increasingly addled as his paranoia spirals and the encroaching shadows of his own misdeeds crowd in on him.
It's a commanding, meticulously shaded performance in a production generally far less subtle, but unstinting in high-style inventiveness.