Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Rupert Goold’s new production of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, transfers to the West End from Chichester on the back of some of the warmest reviews and critical plaudits imaginable. And much though my inner contrarian would have liked to disagree, it is hard to fault the praise. Though not “perfect” (whatever that would mean), this is a very strong production.
Goold has set the production in a meticulously detailed vision of Scotland as Stalinist Soviet Russia - perhaps a comment on the former country’s continuing attraction to the far-left, but probably not (in spite of Stewart’s George Galloway moustache). Either way, it’s a set-up which makes absolute sense of the power relationships within the play. When Macbeth orders his dinner guests to be merry, or gives orders to the murderers in his employ, he wears his power as a constant threat of violence. When Banquo leaves the castle, his expression demonstrates that he is under absolutely no illusion what is going to happen to him. Stewart’s Macbeth is a tyrannical dictator of a tin-pot country exhibiting the same sort of unpredictable violent psychopathy as Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin. The relationship between Macbeth and Kate Fleetwood’s much younger Lady M. is also perfectly pitched. As perhaps two of the most famous characters in English literature, it is probably fair to say that we come to the theatre pretty much knowing what they say and do - and a vast majority these days will have sat an exam on why they do it, too. It is surprising, then, when actors actually get it right without making a big song and dance about some psychological nuance or tick that they’ve dreamed up. This is essentially a very pure, clear, uncomplicated (but never less than thoroughly intelligent) reading of this crucial relationship.
In spite of the production's cinematic qualities, it is not afraid of theatricality. Soliloquies are directed at the audience, not passed off as some sort of improbable staring-into-space talking-to-yourself. The action takes place within a grimy, white-tiled basement room, painstakingly designed by Anthony Ward, which is variously cast as a military hospital or castle kitchen. It suits the production perfectly, and conjures up the horror film aesthetic which is another key plank in the production’s success. One of the problems that Macbeth has as a play for modern audiences is that so much of it hinges on ideas with which we have little truck. It is ironic that theatre, for all its potential for the imaginative, tends to be rather grown-up and serious in its subjects nowadays, largely ignoring genre fripperies like horror and the supernatural. What Goold does is remind us that actually we’re perfectly credulous about such things elsewhere - that cinema has a fine, long history of scaring out of our wits with things we don’t believe in at all in the normal run of things. While his weird sisters aren’t quite Blair Witches, their appearance as clinical ghoulish field hospital nurses, seemingly butchering patients and channelling messages through corpses, is properly frightening. Similarly, Banquo’s ghost is so drenched in blood that Macbeth’s fear seems wholly understandable. Here Goold pulls off another neat trick, putting the ghost’s appearance either side of the interval - rather like a cliff-hanger before an ad break - with the ghost visible pre-interval and then removed post-, so that we see the scene first through the eyes of Macbeth and then those of his dinner guests.
Indeed, Goold has nipped and tucked the text subtly but extensively throughout, in places entirely reimagining the dynamic by which whole scenes function. Several scenes of quite perfunctory exposition gain new life through a re-setting, or some piece of business. In one, a mundane exchange between Lennox and Ross becomes a police-state interrogation, while the murder of Banquo is played out in a train carriage as he is poisoned then shot repeatedly in the head, conjuring Litvinenko and perhaps, naughtily, Jean Charles de Menezes. The scene in which Macbeth briefs the murderers all turns on Patrick Stewart making himself a ham sandwich - carving knife follows butter knife follows bread knife as he talks, with his two listeners absolutely rooted to the spot with terror lest he suddenly attack one of them. It’s the sort of thing you expect in the Godfather; in Macbeth it is wholly unexpected, and all the more powerful for it.
There is also video projection. Macbeth’s coronation is suggested by newsreel footage of massed Soviet army parades, while the creepy world of the witches is supplemented with (Ringu-style?) static - the latter doesn’t perhaps make much intellectual sense, as it suggestively connects these convincingly pagan fiends with an unwonted level of technology. Similarly Macbeth’s monologue following his second visit to the witches is somewhat dwarfed by the blurry, unsettling images playing out on the vast walls behind him. Just for a moment, the human scale is briefly subsumed. There are other possible gripes: Michael Feast’s Macduff seems on a lonely mission to out-Berkoff Berkoff and there may have been better Malcolms than Scott Handy’s, but these are minor points. In the main this is a wonderfully modern, inventive take on the play which both serves the text and offers enormous directorial fecundity. I’ve not seen enough Macbeths to make the “best Macbeth I’ve seen” tag properly meaningful - it is, but in a field offering barely any competition. But it is bloody good nonetheless.