Friday the weather turned inclement, seven to nine inches of snow, rumors of ice storms and sleet and who knows what-all. New Yorkers know what this means: the museums will be empty, the theaters uncrowded. About 6:15, I headed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the Chichester Festival was performing Macbeth, the entire run sold out. I was offered cheap seats upstairs and expensive seats in Row R or Row B in the orchestra. Row B was way over my budget – but screw the budget.
It was my third Macbeth since last summer – fourth, if you count the second season of Slings & Arrows on DVD. First off there was the rather tidy one at the Istanbul Opera in October; then the special-effects and glamour one at the Met. For Chichester, mysteriously, they did not play Verdi’s score. It was halfway through before I noticed this lacuna – I guess I’d been humming it – but suddenly there were a couple of scenes that Verdi did not set in his opera, and I noticed that only I had been musicalizing. (Considering what Guleghina did with her cabalettas, this was sort of a relief.) Then I realized that not only was the text being spoken, not sung, but all of it – every word of Shakespeare – was on display, which is not the usual thing at all. Some lines were reassigned, but they were all there.
The star was Patrick Stewart, a good name for an actor playing a Scottish king – though the Stewart dynasty were the descendants of Banquo and Fleance. A short, stocky, handsome, aging gentleman with a completely shaven head, PS looked familiar somehow – oh yes, he was the excellent Prospero in the Central Park Tempest a decade back. And didn’t he do something on TV? A detective addicted to lollipops? I could be wrong.
Both he and Kate Fleetwood, the excellent Lady M, avoided the usual pitfall: they were not ghastly from the get-go. Macbeth was a jolly good fellow – but muttering under his breath. He plays practical jokes on his party guests – and only from their expressions do you realize that they are all scared of him, that this is a tyrant’s dinner party, that they know they could all be dragged off and shot in an instant. His mood stays buoyant until, in the last scenes, you realizes it is a last stratagem against despair. When the doctor says uneasily that Lady M is tormented by dreams and moods, Macbeth cries, cheerily, “Cure her of that!” and it got a laugh.
Fleetwood, chosen in part exactly because she was so much younger than Stewart, so that she can be seen to be using her sexual promise to keep him ambitious, did some charming things, showing the terror lurking beneath her determination to do evil. When Duncan arrived at the castle, she and her staff were chopping things up in the kitchen, and she had an apron on. Having already plotted his murder, she had the grace to be embarrassed, to laugh and blush and pass it off as confusion at being seen in kitchen clothes – she rushed to a sink and washed her hands, a move that we were intended to note (and, of course, remember – in the sleepwalking scene, when the faucets ran red, which since it can only be true in her dream, was perhaps overkill). (But we jumped, as we were intended to.)
The play, Macbeth, is the tragedy of an ordinary man – neither overly good nor overtly evil – who commits a deed he knows to be wicked, fully aware of what it will mean. Worst of all, he is an imaginative man – he foresees things – sometimes things that are not there. He has regrets, too – he cannot lie to himself, tell himself it is a worthwhile action (as most of us can when we violate our better instincts), or pretend later that there is anyone else to blame. Rightly he does not blame his wife (as many a real man would), or the witches – he has walked into this, eyes open (to this world and other worlds), and the play examines the problem of why such a man would do so. (Since so many do.) Considering how often the devil is mentioned in the play (a lot), Shakespeare blames him very little. Macbeth has doomed himself. When he reaches the pit of despair, we shudder, and are meant to. No one but Malcolm triumphs. (The crowing of Hecate and the witches is an interpolation by Middleton, and it was not played at BAM; I have never seen a production of the play that did use it.)
Stewart, who has said, “I realized I’ve known these speeches all my life,” speaks them as if their knotty paths were only just opening to him. He speculates on the witches’ motives, on the phantom dagger, on Macduff’s flight, on the miserable conclusion of his ambitions, on the point of surviving at all. He displays his mind. It is all very clear and nimble. I was riveted. (But then, I was in Row B.)
I’ve never been sure how I’d stage the Ghost of Banquo – the usual bloody fellow appearing suddenly from the crowd does not satisfy me. Perhaps, I thought, I’d have no one there at all, Macbeth pointing at nothing, so that we could share the consternation of the guests. I’d have liked to have it both ways – the horror Macbeth sees and the other horror – a madman in mid-fit – seen by everyone else – but I couldn’t figure out how to manage that. That, no doubt, is why Rupert Goold, not I, was chosen to direct the production – he shared my ambition, and he figured out how to pull it off.
You can break a Shakespeare play almost anywhere in reason, and I was not sure when the break would come – before or after Banquo’s death, before or after the banquet and apparition scene that follows. I had never thought of breaking it in the middle of the latter scene. (In the opera, of course, one cannot do that – the concertato that ends the scene must also end the act.) Goold played the banquet scene through Macbeth’s confabulation with the half-achieving murderer; then he sat at the table and the Ghost entered, drenched in blood, and marched down the long table to Macbeth (who had his back to us and therefore might be imagined as aghast as we liked). At which point, blackout, intermission. Then, to start again, the whole scene again, this time from the guests’ point of view – they did not hear what Macbeth was muttering to the murderer, and there was no visible Banquo – only a king howling outrage and horror. But we knew what he was seeing. Clever.
The Witches were surgical nurses. (They were surgical nurses at the Istanbul Opera too – makes more sense than Monty Python bag ladies with awkward shoes and tiny handbags, as at the Met.) I cottoned to this before most people – they were working on the Bloody Sergeant during his rather excessive report on Macbeth’s generalship to Duncan in the opening scene. (Scene ii in the printed text, but no matter.) When Duncan bade someone “see to his wounds” and departed, the nurses calmly murdered him (gasps of horror around me), and launched “When shall we three meet again” (scene i in the printed text). Later they were servants at Macbeth’s banquet, making him uneasy. (I wasn’t crazy about that, but I don’t think the witches should be made too powerful – they tempt Macbeth, but they do not make him do things – this was a mistake the Istanbul – and many other – Macbeths make; the witches manipulated everything: handing Macbeth the letter to write to his wife, delivering the letter, arming the murderers, empowering everyone – flying in the teeth of Free Will, a concept Shakespeare makes clear is quite enough to account for Macbeth’s bad behavior.)
What did seem to be made clear was that when he first meets the witches, Macbeth is wary of them; he is willing to not act, to let the crown come to him, if it’s going to. And after all, it is they who confront him – they tempt him (and don’t bother with Banquo) because they know he’s already been speculating crown-wards. In contrast, when he seeks them out on the heath, he wants them – though he bullies and insults them, he desperately needs their reassurance and no longer automatically distrusts their words. By the end of the scene, he is totally given up to them, and therefore (unspoken) to Hell – it is his only hope, since he cannot speak Amen, cannot ask God for help in what he well knows are unholy deeds. His ego is not barefaced enough (as real tyrants’ egos surely are) to see his own deeds as necessarily right, and all opposition as necessarily evil. He is unable to lie to himself – an ability surely most criminals possess. “You lack the season of all natures, sleep,” says his lady (almost her last waking utterance). It is his conscience that refuses to sleep – but he has already defied it. “I am afraid to think what I have done.” But he can’t stop thinking. Every murder he commits after the king’s – the grooms, Banquo, the Macduff family – is unnecessary, but they are active, and he is willing to do anything rather than be pensive. He sleeps no more. His imagination cannot be unloosed. (And from his lady’s fate, we know what could happen if it were.)
From the second witches’ encounter, therefore, the scene of the apparitions, Macbeth is wholly theirs. That they have betrayed him without lying gives them no pleasure – it is what he really wanted – that they’d tell him he was secure when he knows in his heart of hearts that he can never be secure, that he deserves the punishments he’s going to get. They tell him what he wants.
The witches’ recipe-spell is another pitfall for a director, and this one Goold has miscalculated. They rap the spell, and at such a pace that not a word of it is intelligible but the refrain, “Double, double.” Most rappers have pretty decent diction, but not these dames. (One of them had a pleasing Scottish accent in her solo lines, but not here.) The words burbled by unheard, and our attention flagged – I could not help contrasting this with the wedding masque in Stewart’s Tempest, a scene usually dropped or ignored – when three ladies on stilts in enormous gowns came in chanting their lines in Caribbean rhythms – the image was striking, the verse catchy, the moment riveting while (appropriately) outside the experience of the play, another world – it is a visitation of three goddesses, after all. Perhaps Big Bill wrote it, hoping to attain the popular appeal of the apparition scene in Macbeth, which became (and long remained) one of the most audience-catching parts of the play, a big draw, music and light and special effects. And of course both were designed to appeal to the highly theatrical king, James VI and I (eighth kingly descendant of Banquo), who believed in witches, read of gods, and adored masques – whose daughter’s wedding may have been the occasion for the writing of The Tempest.
The apparitions were contorted figures in body bags. Not bad. The witches spoke their lines (they also did in Istanbul). Fine.
Lady Macduff and her children (who had earlier appeared in the waking-of-Duncan scene) were given some originality here. Suzanne Burden was so upset by impending doom as to speak her lines in a fretful humor rather than the usual sentimentality. Tim Treloar played Ross (and lines of several other characters) as a weathervane-watching suit who develops a conscience over time. The porter (and other characters), Christopher Patrick Nolan (a little too melodramatically sinister), performed what all London Shakespeare now requires: the onstage pissing scene. He dwelt on the “E-qui-vo-ca-tors” a bit heartily in his Hell-gate monologue, a moment that has been connected to the Jesuits implicated in Guy Fawkes’s Plot around the time (it is generally guessed) of the play’s premiere. But as I thought about it, the whole play, not just some imaginary damned person, is about equivocation – Macbeth bargaining with the Devil, with Fate, with his own sanity. “Don’t be this sort of king,” James is being urged – with the examples of his virtuous ancestors, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo and Fleance to inspire him.
The murder of Banquo was set on a subway car packed with huddled and indifferent commuters – it sort of worked. (At the Met, it’s a crowd of homeless tramps around a fire. In Istanbul, the witches loaned knives and surgical gowns to the murderers. None of these approaches was entirely satisfactory, but the Met’s was just silly.) I was least happy with Scott Feast’s constantly menacing Macduff and Scott Handy’s vacant-eyed Malcolm, and least happy of all with their “temptation” scene together, which was set in either a temperance hall or a music-hall – difficult to know which. People around me who did not know the play did not understand what was going on in this scene at all; I of course did, but the debate was not made interesting. I liked the background slides best when a very green, effective Birnam Wood surrounded Malcolm and his commanders, and when the blood began to ooze about in curlicue patterns, illustrating the mind of Macbeth without distracting us from Stewart’s speaking of the speeches. The blood was probably more effective at a distance – close up it looked too theatrical a scarlet. Paul Shelley, a tolerable Duncan, was more effective as the Doctor. Polly Frame did the gentlewoman well.
On the whole I’d have to call it the most satisfactorily understated staging of the play in my experience – and this is a play that almost demands, but very ill rewards, overstatement. The blood is all there, and the hysteria; you don’t need to add more, overwhelming as the temptation may be. Stewart and Fleetwood and Goold resist that temptation; they give us a play, not an out-and-out spookshow.