February 27, 2008

Hailing "Macbeth"

Part of the fun of seeing Shakespeare is seeing what the director, designers and actors do with the play they’ve chosen. No other playwright in history has had more stuff done to interpret and reinterpret his work. Rupert Goold, one of a seemingly endless string of smart young British directors, does lots of stuff with his production of Macbeth that hit it big in London last season and opened last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For starters, he has cast Patrick Stewart, the classically trained stage actor who made his name in the TV series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation;” and the “X-Men” movies, as the ambitious Scottish lord; and the actress Kate Fleetwood as a much younger Lady Macbeth, who is as high strung and lethal as a razor blade. That sets up a dynamic that makes great sense and gives the proceedings an extra edge—who needs Viagra when you’ve got the aphrodisiac of larcenous ambition shared by a successful older man and a trophy wife half his age.

But Goold doesn’t stop there. He sets the action in a Stalinist-like country and his basic set is a harsh industrial space that most closely resembles the morgue of a poorly funded hospital. He portrays the three witches as nurses there and then turns them into omnipresent muses of evil that neither Macbeth nor the audience can escape. Goold also uses the video projections that contemporary British directors seem to love. (I first saw them put to eye-catching effect two years ago in The Woman in White but now see them everywhere British imports are playing from Jerry Springer: The Opera to the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George.) The energetic director enlists horror movie techniques; there’s lots of blood and gore and shocks that actually made me jump. And he wades right into the play’s psychological murk; this is the most Freudian Macbeth I’ve ever seen.

And I’ve seen my fair share of Macbeths over the years. It may be my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. That’s not necessarily because it’s one of his best but because it was one of my first. I can’t remember now if Macbeth or Twelfth Night was the actual first Shakespeare I ever saw but I saw them both when I was in grade school, thanks to the legendary Joe Papp’s free productions of the Bard that played in New York City parks during the summer and for New York City school kids during the rest of the year. I don’t know who was in the productions I saw but I do remember the thrill of seeing those two plays and I can still quote many of their lines. I imagine the relationship I have to these works is similar to the one the groundlings who first saw Shakespeare’s plays had with them. I think the groundlings would have liked Goold’s visceral production too.

And now word has come that Macbeth will march across the river and into the Lyceum Theatre (about to be vacated by Mark Twain's Is He Dead?) for an eight week run, beginning at the end of March. Just hearing Stewart, who has dreamed of playing the role since he was a boy, wrap his dulcet voice around Macbeth's speeches is probably worth the price of the ticket. And then, there's all the other stuff. One bit of warning, though, it all adds up to a production that runs about three hours.

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