We’re in hell. More precisely, in hell’s kitchen. Anthony Ward’s powerfully simple but immensely versatile set of a dirty, white-tiled chamber of horrors is part kitchen, part abattoir, part the inhospitable hospital of everyone’s worst nightmare. Yet the creeping nastiness and escalating horrors of Rupert Goold’s visceral production of “Macbeth” keeps auds horribly awake. When a director exhibits such crowd-pleasing theatrical flair it feels almost churlish to complain. But there’s something worrying about a “Macbeth” in which the production seems more resonant than the play.
Two pieces of casting determine if this play survives or dies. The first, obviously, is the leading role. As the man who would be king in a world reminiscent of mid-20th century Eastern European fascism, shaven-headed Patrick Stewart is in strong form. The rare, witty touch when, expecting a promotion, he overzealously steps forward as Duncan names Malcolm for the honor, point up his otherwise bullying and bullish nature. His Macbeth is an ambitious, controlled, confident thug shrouding himself in repressive, leather-coated state politics.
The other crucial directorial choice is how to handle the witches. If they are not properly threatening, the play collapses. Goold’s choice is inspired.
Picking up on the description of them as “weird sisters,” Goold makes them just that. Switching round the two opening scenes, he starts the play with three starchily- clad nurses ministering to the bloody sergeant on a hospital gurney. “I am faint, my gashes call for help,” he cries. The ward sisters appear to be helping him but, shockingly, they are killing him: These angels of mercy are angels of death. It’s so frightening an image that their subsequent invincible persuasion of Macbeth becomes excitingly logical.
The downside of Goold’s inventiveness is that although the nastiness is often horribly effective, cumulatively is it unaffecting. It’s as if he loses sight of, or doesn’t trust, the language’s power. He is too busy (over)illustrating his every idea — and he crams more of those into a scene than many directors manage in an entire production.
Take his handling of Banquo’s ghost. To illustrate Macbeth’s terrified guilt, directors have to choose whether or not to show Banquo in the banquet scene.
Goold sets up a long, narrow table with Macbeth seated at the end with his back to the audience. Amid the merriment, a scaldingly backlit Banquo descends into the room from the industrial elevator in the back wall. Slamming wide the gates, he marches up onto the white table. Adam Cork’s ever-present, looming sound design rises to a hair-raising roar as, drenched in blood, Banquo strides threateningly down to tower over Macbeth. The lights snap to black: intermission.
That arresting fusion of image, idea and design leaves auds on a tremendous high. Yet at the top of the second half, Goold plays the scene again, this time without Banquo. Trying to have it both ways, Goold winds up showing his directorial choices rather than fostering real engagement with the scene.
Similarly, the second witches’ scene looks and sounds powerful, with video imagery racing around the walls and “Double, double, toil and trouble” rendered as a rap over a thumping heartbeat while the witches preside over body bags that leap to life. But the words are yelled, transmitting generalized scariness but sacrificing detail.
A markedly upright Scott Handy is a rigorous Malcolm, and Suzanne Burden works miracles with the tiny role of fearful and angry Lady Macduff, but the most powerful work comes from Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth.
Simply reading the letter that kickstarts their fatal plan, Fleetwood’s fierce vocal clarity freezes the entire theater. Her eyes gleam; standing rigid and calling up the spirits, she is astonishingly believable. By sheer pulsating force of will she makes auds believe her greyhound-thin body is being charged with power.
Yet even she has to fight against Goold’s addiction to insistently clever business. It’s upsetting to watch her sleepwalking and pouring bleach over her guilt-stained hands. But when the tap in the sink runs not water but blood, the focus goes to the prop, not the person.
That’s indicative of the price the production pays. This relatively short play now weighs in at three hours because although Goold’s intelligent choices are immensely theatrical, they elongate and strain what is usually a more tightly argued drama.
Nevertheless, a smash-hit at the regional Chichester Festival Theater, the production is now eyeing a Broadway berth to follow this 10-week London run. Its clear-sighted savagery is likely to prove an exhilarating hit with the Tarantino generation at the very least.