Monday, March 10, 2008

Should they all have hailed Macbeth?

Honey, where's the ketchup? Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart clean up in the kitchen.

I know, what's done cannot be undone; still, I wish someone had thrown some sort of critical obstruction in the way of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; they might have spared me $100 and an evening of rock-concert-level aural histrionics. But the critics spoke with almost one voice (except for Leonard Jacobs over at the Clyde Fitch Report): "fearsome insight and theatrical fire" (NY Times); "inspired . . . frenzied . . . symphonic" (The New Yorker); "directorial inventiveness matched by brilliant acting" (The Guardian).

To be fair, some of the gush is understandable, because this Macbeth is, indeed, brilliantly staged by director Rupert Goold, who crams in coups de théâtre almost cheek-by-jowl. As you probably know by now, the show conjures a kind of British Stalinist dystopia via a chilly, Saw-esque hospital/kitchen set, which the three witches prowl relentlessly as nurses, technicians, or cooks. Some of Goold's gambits, are, alas, ridiculous - as when the witches start to rap - but many others are sublime, including the weird sisters' dispatch of the Bloody Captain, the appearance/disappearance of Banquo's ghost, and the video projections of Birnam Wood (into which Malcolm's army vanishes in its camouflage fatigues).

But staging tricks can only get you so far, even when they come at you with such distracting rapidity (and volume). The sad truth is that Patrick Stewart makes a weatheredly sexy but emotionally flat Macbeth, and the seemingly-more-able Kate Fleetwood (perhaps as a result) basically flails about as Lady M, and no amount of rock-show fog or spurting blood can obscure that. Stewart seems to have taken a kind of whimsical nihilism as the be-all and end-all of his portrayal - which leads to a few intriguingly insightful laughs toward the finish, but little more; essentially, his arc is drastically foreshortened, then toyed with for two hours. We hear little of Macbeth's famous poetry (he's arguably Shakespeare's most poetic hero), and see even less of his descent into savagery; it's all cool, slightly cracked business-as-usual for Stewart, whom we half-expect to hear tell his murderous henchmen, "Make it so!" Stewart even willfully restyled Macbeth's final moment into a kind of suicide, which of course was all of a piece with his earlier despair - but, um, isn't change the essence of drama? Somehow I thought so. As for Fleetwood, I'd love to see her do this role again - she has a strikingly icy gonzo hauteur - only perhaps against an actor who can relate to her onstage. There was, in fact, only one memorable performance in the show - Michael Feast made a dramatic feast of Macduff, expertly articulating the most difficult moment in the text (Macduff's reaction to the news of his murdered children), and remaining intriguingly vulnerable to Macbeth's foul fiend to the finish. Now his is a Macbeth I'd like to see, but I suppose he'll have to pilot a television show - or maybe a starship - before I get the chance.

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