Pathos is an essential element of roles like Lear and Hamlet, but Macbeth, not so much. Yet one of the qualities that resonates most unexpectedly in Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of the butchering tyrant is the mental frailty of a man overpowered and undone by his own ruthless ambition. Exactly how well Stewart is served by the blood-soaked flamboyance of Rupert Goold’s overburdened production will be a matter of taste, but the rising-star Brit director’s “Macbeth” is as cinematic as it is boldly theatrical. It may not always elucidate the plot or characters to best advantage but it sure keeps you glued.
A hit last year at the Chichester Festival Theater and subsequently in the West End, the production arrives for a six-week Brooklyn Academy of Music season laden with awards and every superlative London critics could fling at it. (Subsequent to this review, “Macbeth” has transferred to Broadway, opening April 8 at the Lyceum for a limited engagement through May 24. Byron Jennings as Duncan and a Scottish doctor, and Rachel Ticotin as Lady Macduff have joined the cast, replacing the actors listed here.)
Goold’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays is to make it even more horrific, freely mixing bone-chilling supernatural shivers with vicious warmongering, Machiavellian politics, psychological unease and technological intrusions.
It’s an aggressively contemporary “Macbeth,” depicting the usurper-king and his black-hearted wife (Kate Fleetwood) as highly evolved social animals, decanting wine, passing out canapes and entertaining with the same steely sense of purpose they bring to plotting murders. Naturally, that should heighten the schadenfreude of the couple’s downfall. But despite his despicable nature, the death of Stewart’s Macbeth nonetheless registers as a human loss, not just the elimination of a power-mad oppressor. This is no mean feat when the character ultimately is paraded out as a severed head slick with gore — a choice forewarned in every nasty flourish that’s come before it.
Continuing a long-established trend of darkening the political overtones of Shakespeare’s tragedies by dropping them into Orwellian totalitarian states, Goold shifts the Scottish play to an Eastern European setting at the height of the Cold War. Designer Anthony Ward’s austere set is a grimy, white-tiled expanse that effectively serves as infirmary, kitchen, morgue, banquet hall and even a train compartment in an audacious reimagining of the murder of Banquo (Martin Turner).
A single video monitor feeds projected images across the rear wall that range from vine-like bloody tendrils to huge, Stalinist military assemblies, and a smoke-filled, double-gated industrial elevator disgorges its passengers — flesh and spirit — into this living hell.
The production’s single most imaginative stroke — and the one that sets its tone — is the transformation of the three witches into sinister nurses, initially seen tending to a prophetic wounded soldier in the opening scene, before it’s revealed they are offering not assistance but a hastened demise. More omnipresent than in straightforward productions, the “weird sisters” also serve as kitchen hands and servants.
Impressively choreographed by movement director Georgina Lamb, and rarely seen without a dagger, meat cleaver, hacksaw or some such instrument of carnage in hand, these petite figures in their crisply starched uniforms and with their disembodied, electro-enhanced voices seem to have stepped right out of a ’70s horror movie. There are shades of Dario Argento, George A. Romero and vintage David Cronenberg, along with echoes of Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom” and frequent splashes of bloody Tarantino-esque excess.
Goold stages the “Toil and trouble” incantation as a zombie rap, with J-Horror static playing across the back wall and Adam Cork’s dense soundscape working overtime as the witches draw their deadly predictions out of body-bagged corpses on mortuary slabs. Mining a similar undead aesthetic, the often interminable porter’s scene is sexed up by having Christopher Patrick Nolan writhing and hissing like a lascivious ghoul.
All this is undeniably transfixing and makes for non-stop visual, visceral spectacle, atmospherically saturated in Howard Harrison’s eerie, hard-edged lighting. What it doesn’t always do is serve the play. Goold appears to have missed the memo that “Macbeth” is the swift Shakespeare. Stretching the drama out to three full hours, the director’s embellishments often distract from the essence of a scene or dilute the characters’ motivations, layering on creepy-cool effects in a style that’s more show-offy than illuminating.
And sure, it’s hypnotic to watch these vile climbers performing simple domestic tasks, such as Lady Macbeth retrieving a chocolate layer cake from the refrigerator or hubby making a cheese and pickle sandwich. But the nagging suspicion arises repeatedly that Goold doesn’t believe the text alone can sustain audience attention.
Some touches add texture, such as replaying the appearance of Banquo’s ghost twice, immediately before and after intermission, showing the apparition to the audience the first time and only to Macbeth the second, as his dinner guests look on in alarmed perplexity. Reworking the interrogation of Ross (Tim Treloar) as a torture scene also is a smart stroke, and the convergence of Macbeth and his killers on the Macduff family is a coldly terrifying image. Elsewhere, however, Goold appears to have ignored the warning from Macbeth’s own lips about “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
The theatrical pyrotechnics calm down somewhat in the second act, allowing the full force of some terrific performances to be revealed. Notable among them, Michael Feast’s Macduff is intensely moving when learning of the slaughter of his wife and children, his devastated silence sputtering slowly into rage; Suzanne Burden strikes a fine balance of indignation and fear in Lady Macduff; and Scott Handy’s genteel but resolute manner makes his Malcolm a worthy successor to the contested throne.
But the key casting of course is the Macbeths themselves, and the age difference between Fleetwood and Stewart of what appears to be about three decades adds fascinating nuances. Slinking around in Ward’s ’50s-chic wardrobe, with lips like a fresh scar, Lady Macbeth here is the most dangerous kind of trophy wife, her jaw set in a permanent state of tense hunger as she goads her husband to action. Fleetwood is equally compelling later, when her cruel scheming gives way to guilt and madness.
Stewart is somewhat older than the traditional take on the title character, giving his brutal bid for power a suggestion of resentment at being a valiant, long-serving warrior overdue for leadership. He starts out relaxed and almost affably chatty, his thirst for advancement fueled by his wife. But there are affecting moments of befuddlement in his performance, becoming increasingly addled as his paranoia spirals and the encroaching shadows of his own misdeeds crowd in on him.
It’s a commanding, meticulously shaded performance in a production generally far less subtle, but unstinting in high-style inventiveness.