nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
February 15, 2008
The emperor is buck-naked. That was all I could think having just watched the three-hour Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (in the only decent seats for this production, which are orchestra level). The performance I saw was limited by concept and largely perfunctory in energy and emotion (although it did have an uncomfortably fascinating moment of two actors seemingly loathing each other, alas not actually as a part of the play). The production does have some interesting ideas; and when you can see them within the intermittent and overwhelming projections, the cast seems quite capable. But as a whole this production of Macbeth is irritating and more committed to domestication than dramatization.Set in a Cold War version of Scotland, this Macbeth takes place mostly in a bunker and occupies the lower quarter of the Harvey Theater's gloriously tall space. It makes for a wide-screen cinematic feel as the actors are playing within that band, and is an interesting sensation for the orchestra seats. However, I spent much of Act I wondering what could be seen from the upper balcony, as in this space the rake of the house is quite severe. (I was able to verify from an audience member seated upstairs that the cast was not looking up and that the energy spectrum from cast to audience was not including them.)
Despite the Stalin-Era designs, director Rupert Goold seeks to find the homey in the scenes. Thus, entertaining King Duncan after a triumphant battle becomes dinner at the Macbeths, in which our host considers not killing a guest while attempting to open and decant a bottle of wine—the action becoming much more interesting than whatever he was saying. The flight on horseback of Banquo and Fleance becomes assassination on a train by means of the death tea trolley. Now neither of these ideas is in itself bad for setting the scene, but the concepts get more attention in this production than the content. There is a lot of playing on top of the text and not in it, partially due to the heaviness of the director's sensibility and also to an overall unenergized cast.
One thing the production does well is create an inherently flawed couple that makes where the Macbeths start and end completely believable without falling into the all too common (and weird) "they're so hot for each other, they had to kill" characterizations. Kate Fleetwood's fine Lady Macbeth, manages to inhabit the staging without compromising a sense of dramatic intensity. In their scenes together, she and Patrick Stewart create the right kind of edginess, which the entire production could benefit from. The wrong kind of edginess might be the Porter's characterization, which I am guessing was meant to be akin to Stalin's NVKD head Yezhov but more often reads as "Beetlejuice does Shakespeare." When the text says "remember the Porter," I do think it meant for something more interesting than pretending to pee on stage.
There are more strange choices. The witches are hospital nurses with veil headdresses, which will read more World War I to American audiences than 1950s. Although their creepy omnipresence is well integrated into the action, during their more active sequences they are choreographed with "Walk Like an Egyptian" hand gestures and Beyoncé-style struts that are simply strange. The faux-rapping of their final incantation seems a condescending way of "modernizing" it. Nor can I fathom why such good actors as Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady, holding their own with Patrick Stewart, are subjected to such silliness. It is odd and I don't think ultimately successful when a production asks you to laugh at the play. This is a play that has humor and drama, and without all the pyrotechnics it can be action-packed through kick-ass connection to text and want. But then that would require a cast less at the mercy of the production concepts.
Frequently shows at BAM have been on tour for a while yet for the audience it is still their first experience of the production. They deserve a full performance no matter how long the tour has been. Even within the most oppressive manifestation of concept, the actors can connect to this text and let it rip. When they don't, it minimizes the drama—as does sullenly letting another actor waffle for a line when a simple jump to the next cue would have moved the scene along. Something far more interesting than the staging was going on underneath the MacDuff-Donalbain conspiracy in England scene on the night I attended. Either very poorly cut or remembered, its dramatic tension culminated in a stand off with one actor stone-faced watching the other sink.
Although there is significant thought in this production, there is misguided talent throughout. I don't know why these talented professionals were phoning in their performances, but they were; and I resent mightily a half-assed performance at this ticket price. While this Macbeth ought to put to rest any assumption that British casts deal with text better than American actors, it makes me spitting mad that this production will pass for quality on the basis of being British and "new" as well as affection for an elsewhere fine actor, Patrick Stewart.