Reviewed by David Spencer
I had not read any particulars about Rupert Goold's Chichester Festival Theatre Production of Macbeth, that recently played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and just moved to the Lycuem Theatre for a limited Broadway run, so I promise you, when I traveled to the theatre thinking, I wonder if this is going to be one of those modern dress productions that likens the nefarious politics of the play to the goings-on in a fascist state, it was in all innocence, and I was surprised and a first a little disappointed to discover upon arrival that such was precisely what it is.
I can't say that my disappointment ever lifted completely—this metaphorical ground has been well-trod in Shakespeare productions before—but Mr. Goold manages a few spins, twists and effects that are striking and in keeping with contemporary sensibilities as shaped by modern media. That the set (designer: Anthony Ward) in which everything occurs is a bleak, austere, industrial-looking kitchen, with an ominous cage-elevator at the back; that the three witches are portrayed as ghoulish, grey-faced military nurses; that the appearance of Banquo's ghost is presaged by a computer animation of blood spreading out on the walls to either side of the descending elevator; all and their particular “look” signify a production whose creative team are as conversant with genre television, graphic novels and horror movies as they are with political history and the Bard. So whatever else might be said, Goold knows how to keep things well-paced, plus visually brisk and bracing.
As with all such productions, his eventually falls victim to aspects of the original text that don't fully support the metaphor; in my view, these are passages that come to the fore in the final third of the evening—the battle scenes. Shakespeare was very much a man of as well as ahead of his time in honoring certain audience expectations and storytelling conventions of his era; you see it happening when these delicious, dark, psychological character studies he’s put forth suddenly morph into dramatizations of war maneuvers, wherein the villain anti-hero's subtleties give way to less interesting, less consistent and at times unconvincingly motivated manifestations of troubled conscience; while the forces of good rave on about vengeance and honor and justice. Call me a blasphemer if you wish, but in my experience, Macbeth (along with a few other Shakespeare plays, like Richard III) always seems like two different plays conjoined by a single production. And in the case of this production, the battle scenes feel labored. They don't belong against the charnel house backdrop because they feel at odds with contained interiors; the modern weaponry (machine guns and pistols) never quite feels in sync with the text; in short, such "straight action sequences" are never as friendly to modern re-envisioning as the more up-close-and-personal psychological stuff because they are by nature more literal and more logistical.
Even so, Goold's staging holds onto its mojo longer than most that I’ve seen in this modern mold, and this has in large measure to do with his lead performers: Patrick Stewart manages to keep Macbeth's mental deterioration a continuing process even through the battle scenes, by putting disturbing spins on foursquare speeches, thus painting a true and vivid portrait of absolute power corrupting absolutely, not just the morals, but the soul and the grip on sanity...and Kate Fleetwood's vulpine and sensual take on Lady Macbeth is a study in various lusts that cannot sustain intensity, for having burned so brightly they must inevitably consume themselves. Like Stewart's, her performance seems hauntingly authentic.
It takes a lot for me to cite a Shakespeare production as a must-see, and despite the accolades of other critics, I can't say that this particular Macbeth quite reaches that watermark on my personal scale. But it's certainly worthy, and it's certainly closer than most.