Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Patrick Stewart, Michael Feast, Kate Fleetwood, Paul Shelly, Martin Turner
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Performances February 12-March 22, 2008
It is typical of Rupert Goold’s deconstruction of Shakespeare’s leanest, quickest-moving tragedy that the British director’s production clocks in at over three hours. What Shakespeare wrote to verbally and dramatically convey the speediness of the Scottish usurper’s “vaulting ambition” has been slowed down to a crawl, seriously compromising the play.
That’s not to say that Goold’s Soviet-tinged Macbeth is without its compensations. Among these are several effective tableaux, thanks mainly to a terrific design crew. Anthony Ward’s unit set resembles the white-tiled basement of some soulless office building; Howard Harrison’s lighting takes on a spookily cinematic character; Adam Cork’s sound design encompasses disturbing horror-film screeches and Bachian chorales; Lorna Heavey’s video projections, seen on the back walls and on a television placed atop a refrigerator at the rear of the stage, are inventive.
From the beginning, Goold has created a primer in how to underscore the obvious. The three weird sisters weirdly become three nurses in an operating room. This makes no sense, since the Sergeant they are working on relates important plot points to Duncan and Malcolm. Wouldn’t this seriously wounded man be under such sedation that he wouldn’t be able to declaim such a long speech while being operated on?
The witches’ absurdities continue throughout this production; they do double (or is that triple?) duty as a trio of cooks in Macbeth’s kitchen and a trio of servants at his table, where they brandish symbolic cleavers. At one point, they walk downstage and redundantly show off the knives hidden behind their backs. When they rap the “double, double, toil and trouble” speech, allowances can be made if only because their scenes are filled with grotesque strangeness.
Goold conjures other diverting effects that, for all their cleverness, shed no enlightenment on the play at all. When Macbeth discusses murdering Banquo with his hired killers, he makes a sandwich which he eats and offers to his hirelings. Banquo’s murder occurs aboard a train, as his killers serve him a poisoned drink. Luckily, before dying, he's able to pull the emergency brake, which allows his son Fleance to flee.
The banquet during which Macbeth sees the ghost of his vanquished enemy is staged twice: from Macbeth’s point of view and then again, after intermission, from that of his guests. In the middle of this scene, the dinner becomes a dance party as the assembled guests pair off for several high-spirited pas de deux, apparently to provide a little levity before the tragedy resumes.
Such scenes delight the audience like some of those hammy Central Park productions do; apparently Shakespeare needs help to stay relevant and entertaining. (Poor man!) But these interpretations tell us nothing about the play that isn’t already in the text. And when one of the murderers tells Macbeth that he slit Banquo’s throat, though we clearly saw it was poison that did him in, it’s downright insulting to both Shakespeare and the spectators.
Goold has even added dialogue to “improve” the text. Before Banquo meets his maker on the train, he asks another passenger to “Give me a light,” so he can enjoy a final cigarette. Later, when a messenger tells Macbeth about Birnam Wood’s advance, Macbeth joins him in finishing his sentence “the wood began to move.” That would have made pointless Macbeth’s next line, “Liar and slave!” -- which, to be sure, has been cut.
There are some moments when Goold illuminates the text. Most notable is an early scene when Lady Macbeth washes her hands after entering to greet King Duncan prior to his death, a prefiguring of the washing of her bloody hands later in the play. Two sequences also stand out for their chilling immediacy: Macduff’s wrenching response to the news that his wife and children have been murdered and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene simply present gifted actors speaking the famous lines, without any directorial trickery.
An imposing actor, Stewart speaks Shakespeare’s poetry passionately; likewise Fleetwood, whose sultry Lady Macbeth is marred only by her distracting tendency to over-enunciate her lines. In a generally good supporting cast, Michael Feast’s Macduff and Martin Turner’s Banquo score highest. Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady make an impressively athletic and animated trio of witches.
Would that Goold’s disappointing production only juggled with, rather than mangled, Shakespeare. Luckily for us, however, the play survives intact.