Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 8, 2008
The Chichester Festival Theatre Production of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rupert Goold. Design by Anthony Ward. Lighting design by Howard Harrison. Composer and sound design by Adam Cork. Video & projection design by Lorna Heavey. Associate Director Steve Marmion. Movement Director Georgina Lamb. Fight Director Terry King. Cast: Oliver Birch, Ben Carpenter, Michael Feast, Kate Fleetwood, Polly Frame, Scott Handy, Henry Hodges, Sophie Hunter, Byron Jennings, Hywel John, Christopher Knott, Niamh McGrady, Bill Nash, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Gabrielle Piacentile, Mark Rawlings, Jacob Rosenbaum, Patrick Stewart, Rachel Ticotin, Tim Treloar, Martin Turner, Phoebe Keeling, VanDusen, Emmett White.
This grounding theme of Rupert Goold's thoughtful but ponderous production of Macbeth, a presentation of the Chichester Festival Theatre that's arrived at the Lyceum following a booking at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is stated most succinctly by the three Weird Sisters for whom prophecy is the bloodiest weapon of all. They appear as nuns, nurses, and scullery workers, carrying out their murderous schemes unseen in plain sight, in the most nondescript of locales. (Anthony Ward's backroom set, a high-traffic kitchen lit by Howard Harrison in Grand Guignol starkness, is ideal for this.)
These witches (played by Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady) are out to prove that no one can be trusted and that everyone is hiding something. For characters who have traditionally served as the soothsaying, truth-telling center of William Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, this at first appears to be a devilish switch. But the instant Patrick Stewart appears as Macbeth, the war hero the witches promise will ascend from the Thane of Glamis to the Thane of Cawdor and finally the Scottish throne, it's clear these mysterious women still are what they've always been: the supernatural forces that make good men go bad.
While Macbeth is frequently played as a monarch-in-waiting, nothing about Stewart immediately impresses as regal. Dressed in a diminishing soldier's uniform, walking with the affected energy of an older man who fears he's outlived his usefulness, and approaching everything with the been-there-done-that attitude of an oft-scarred veteran of life, he's someone you wouldn't notice on the street. But as soon as he's granted the promise of potential, the spark returns behind his eyes and his long-rusty gears start creaking with the hope of making the man matter again.
Macbeth may be dogged by some annoying (albeit temporary) pangs of remorse upon killing current king Duncan (Byron Jennings) at the urging of his own wife (Kate Fleetwood), but it doesn't take him long to transform into a Machiavellian power broker for whom advancement is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Stewart's deliveries of Macbeth's classic speeches, from musing on clutching a phantom dagger to the tale of life and death as told by an idiot, are tinged earlier with ambition and later with resignation, but never with regret. Once you're on the path, to detour is deadly.
Goold devotes the entirety of his production to examining how unassuming men may don extraordinary mantles. From Macbeth's unwitting rival Macduff (Michael Feast) to the bottle-bottom philosopher masquerading as Macbeth's porter (Christopher Patrick Nolan), this world is bursting with people who achieve more - or less - than they can envision. So sensitive is everyone here to future and fate that it's easier than ever to see why advice and augury are preferred to alcohol as the fuel of fancy. The play's final speech, delivered by Duncan's real heir Malcolm (Scott Handy), is unusually chilling, tapping into the corrosively cyclical nature of dreams and nightmares come true.
But because no one puts all this in words as well as Stewart does, the rest of the play tends to drawl and drag when he's not urging it forward. Full-cast sing-along scene transitions, two performances from two different perspectives of the guilt-riddled banquet scene in which the ghost of the dispatched Banquo (Martin Turner) returns, Lorna Heavey's attention-stealing video projections of newsreels and EKGs, and the witches eventually rapping their fortunes don't help, however much they might reinforce Goold's vision of spiritual unpredictability.
The performances likewise vary from the highly detailed (Jennings and Feast) to the earnest but unfocused (Handy) to the dynamic but wayward (Nolan). But because only thin threads of intensity and voice distinguish them, they're obviously living in the same universe, if one that more closely resembles a time-share than a totalitarian dystopia.
Stewart makes that journey alone, and it's one that alternately rivets and terrifies as his Macbeth becomes more corrupting and corruptible. The glee he displays ordering a slaughter while fixing a sandwich, his ruthlessness carrying on a life-or-death sotto voce discussion during his dinner party, and his triumph in slaying a warrior he knows cannot be his own downfall identify a man who's yet come to terms with the new influence he wields.
When it's time for him to answer for his crimes, Macbeth faces it the way he faces everything: like a man. But though Stewart renders this supposedly indestructible figure a slave to immortality, this metamorphosis does not come as a surprise. His Macbeth is never more or less than a man; a tyrant, yes, but a pitiable one who's only ever longed to be more than he is. At portraying this, Stewart unquestionably succeeds, while the rest of this Macbeth more visibly boils in the toil and trouble of finding itself.