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THEATER REVIEW

21st century 'Macbeth'

Patrick Stewart rules the updated version, which is full of flash but short on insight.

April 09, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

NEW YORK -- Patrick Stewart's suave performance in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of "Macbeth," which opened Tuesday at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, can be scored a triumph, but it comes with a few provisos.

Hardly anyone ever gets this most tempting of Shakespearean roles right. By comparison, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear -- tough as they are to pull off -- are more amenable to partial successes. When actors fail in these parts, they tend to fail upward.

The Scottish play, on the other hand, can really be hellish for its leading man. Don't believe me? Ask Kelsey Grammer, Alec Baldwin, Christopher Plummer or any of the other big name Macbeths of the last couple of decades and you'll find out why theater people say the tragedy is cursed.

The play requires a kind of cinematic facility of its director, who must agilely negotiate between close-ups and special effects. Rupert Goold's staging may ride roughshod over the text's subtler psychology, yet it spectacularly captures the moral inversion of a society in which a celebrated military hero can rapidly transform into a fiendish butcher.

The production clocks in at just under three hours, but business is briskly transacted. The upside is that audience members aren't given many opportunities to check their watches; the downside is that there's not always sufficient space for the protagonist's moments of fleeting circumspection.

This is "Macbeth" as arty action movie, beautifully spoken by a cast that seems relatively at home in the modernist whirlwind Goold has conjured. And Stewart, a veteran of Shakespeare as well as sci-fi blockbusters such as the "Star Trek" and "X-Men" franchises, looks like he was born for this sort of adventurous approach to the Bard of Avon.

The setting is a sleekly industrial kitchen. Tougher to pin down is the era, which suggests some crazy mishmash of Stalin's Russia and a timeless Great Britain (more England than Scotland, if the accents are any gauge).

Thankfully, the update doesn't make a mockery of the tale. The set (designed with diabolical flexibility by Anthony Ward, who's also responsible for the costumes) is liberally splattered with gore, as expected. But much of the violence is conveyed through Lorna Heavey's chillingly real video projections of wide-ranging military madness.

The nightmare may have occult trappings, but its horror is only too human. To that end, the three weird sisters are introduced as triage nurses, delighting in the battlefield carnage they'd like to see continue even after peace threatens to put the kibosh on their fun.

Technology's role

The multimedia treatment of the combat scenes plays out like a thriller in an intensive care unit. Yes, the directorial strokes can be overdone (even the witches grow gimmicky), but the use of technology heightens suspense to the breaking point, and few productions have made the connection between state-sanctioned war and individual homicide so scarily vivid.

The central culinary metaphor is an attempt to reveal what happens when public and private appetites are permitted to run riot. Macbeth slowly decants red wine as he scrutinizes his capacity for committing regicide. Later, he fixes himself a neat little sandwich, chopping and spreading with devilish panache while ordering paranoid hits on Banquo (an accomplished Martin Turner) and his son, Fleance (Emmett White).

Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood, overwrought yet lucid) fetches a cake in honor of Duncan's royal visit in the manner of a terrorist gleefully patting a knapsack freshly packed with explosives. When that troubling young Fleance tries to help himself to a leftover slice, Macbeth whisks the dessert back into the fridge -- the sweets aren't for everyone.

For all the production's scenic ingenuity, however, the old challenge of "Macbeth" remains unsolved -- how are you supposed to stay sympathetically engaged with a hero whose journey is from valor to serial killing?

The Aristotelian emotions of pity and fear aren't easily won, and it's not clear that Goold is even hunting after anything vaguely cathartic. His focus is moral rather than emotional, which in some respects is quite refreshing but still a line of attack that prevents us from registering the enormous loss in Macbeth's debasement.

The banquet scene, where a guilty Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost, is repeated before and after intermission, with different levels of corporeal horror. But the self-conscious flashiness of the replay eclipses any insight into Macbeth's submerged conscience. And the "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy, inspired by the death of Lady Macbeth, is somewhat blunted by the fact their marital bond seems purely lustful.

Haunting portrayals

Obviously our feelings aren't shut out entirely. But the most haunting aspects of the work -- the vast discrepancy in age between Stewart's Macbeth and Fleetwood's much younger Lady Macbeth or the image of a neighborly Lady Macduff (Rachel Ticotin) and her doomed brood of children -- are more embodied than played.

Still, Stewart's skillfulness is mesmerizing even if it isn't devastating. But there's no denying the nuclear glow he bestows on the figure's faltering humanity. And even more impressive, he possesses the quality that is indispensable to any portrayal of Macbeth -- the glamorous aura of the chosen one. After all, it's proximity to greatness that urges the character to overleap what is permissibly civilized.

Stewart comes close to achieving something extraordinary, and for a play with so many perplexities in performance, that is an exceptional credit in an already exceptional career.

--

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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