New York City Theater
Lyceum Theatre, Manhattan
The current British production of “Macbeth,” now on stage at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, is both highly innovative and thoroughly chilling. In contrast to the traditional “Macbeth,” the Scottish wars are brought home, with blood and violence, into their very dwelling places and hospitals. From its opening lines, we see a soldier, as he writhes, bloody and dying, upon the hospital gurney.
Moreover, this “Macbeth” interweaves Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy inexorably with today’s realities. The 20th century wars and dictatorships share center stage with an imagined distant past. How does the gifted director, Rupert Goold, achieve this magic? He makes generous use of video, sound, and newsreels—and the skills of his excellent design team (composer and sound designer Adam Cork, video and projection designer Lorna Heavey, and lighting designer Howard Harrison). Moreover, costumes reflect several wars, with the three weird sisters, for example, dressed as World War I nurses (roles they occasionally assume as the story develops). And soldiers’ uniforms are culled from 20th century armies. In short, our own troubled times are never far from our consciousness. Thus “Macbeth” plays out against a modern backdrop.
The story begins when Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman fresh from a victory over the King of Norway, is told by the three witches that he will become King of Scotland. And so begins the rise of a dictatorship. If Macbeth is destined to become king, why, one wonders, must he hasten the process by way of acts of murder? But perhaps he carries out his inevitable destiny—a triumph of predestination over free will.
Back to this production and these performances: Star billing, of course, goes to Patrick Stewart (he of “Star Trek” fame—but also of a thorough Shakespearean background). (Americans may not be familiar with his theatrical triumphs, but they surely recall his television persona.) Stewart’s performance this time around, however, is a mixed bag. Mostly underplaying the role, he manages, at times, to fade into the background. One wishes for a sturdier, more powerful Macbeth, thus making his fall a fall from greater heights. But when Stewart delivers a quiet soliloquy, the words drop like newly-minted gold pieces, with new meaning and depth. (Has Stewart somehow wandered from “Macbeth” into “Hamlet”?) But his skills for projection must be miraculous, because not a single softly-spoken Stewart word is lost.
Not true for others in the cast. Kate Fleetwood, for example, as Lady Macbeth, is incomparable in movement and style. But many of the words Shakespeare puts into her mouth are lost, if a theatergoer is, unfortunately, seated in the orchestra beneath the mezzanine. (Apparently her words bounce off the mezzanine overhang.) What is Lady Macbeth saying? The only answer: return to one’s schoolbooks and reread the play. The same may be said for most of the players, although, again, their physical performances are on target.
In summary: we carry away the Rupert Goold/Shakespearean message---that the more things change, the more they remain the same--that the human experience, with all its conflicts, is timeless.
Apr. 17, 2008