BY ANDY HUMM | After the February 17 performance of “Macbeth” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, I had the misfortune to attend a post-show platform with the leading man, Patrick Stewart, in conversation with Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro. I say “misfortune” because Stewart has such a winning personality that I am loathe to talk about not being conquered by the production.
He was cogent and entertaining in recounting not just his preparation for this role, but his improbable rise from impoverished child to mainstay of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Once an unconventional TV and movie star (from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “The X-Men,” to Paul Rudnick's “Jeffrey”) now, at 67, he enjoys a renaissance as the star of several well-received Shakespeare plays.
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“The past two years have been the grandest of my life professionally,” Stewart said, rejoicing in “living with this language” of the bard “in my mouth and brain” for productions of “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night,” and now the Scottish play.
And to say that this “Macbeth” was well-received is the understatement of the year. The UK Telegraph's Charles Spencer called it “the greatest production of 'Macbeth' I have ever seen.” Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard hailed it as the “'Macbeth' of a lifetime.” And Michael Billington of the Guardian gave it five out of five stars and said it was “spellbinding” and that “Stewart has done nothing finer.”
An incomparable Shakespeare interpreter, Patrick Stewart still falls short as Stalinist Macbeth.
The audience at BAM agreed, with nearly everybody – and they couldn't all have been Trekkies – jumping to their feet in a thunderous standing ovation, echoing Adam Cook's booming sound effects. Director Rupert Goold's take on this play of war and amoral ambition was set in Anthony Ward's bare single castle-kitchen set shrouded in shadows by lighting designer Howard Harrison.
You cannot get tickets to this “Macbeth” unless you become a patron of BAM (itself a worthy cause), but if you are already booked you might want to read my dissent on it afterwards.
A play meant to send shivers down the spine left me cold, from the weird sisters (here portrayed as nurses and members of other service industries) euthanizing a badly wounded soldier in the first scene to Macbeth's over-bloodied severed head gripped to near exploding by Macduff at the curtain. Lay on, indeed.
At times, the production even drifted into low camp with the sleazy porter (Christopher Patrick Nolan) pissing in the front-and-center sink and Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood who is, with all due respect, the director's wife) wringing cheap laughs out of an admonition (“You have displaced the mirth!”) to her liege lord as he freaks out upon seeing Banquo's ghost.
My problem may be as much with the problematic play as with this production, though I was in a minority in liking Moises Kaufman's “Macbeth” in Central Park with Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle in 2006 – a deeply political take on a corrupt warrior presented at just the moment the country was turning against the Iraq war and on the verge of throwing the ruling Republicans out of Congress.
Goold's “Macbeth” is political, too, set in Soviet Russia in the 1950s with a mustachioed Stewart evoking Stalin – who was much funnier, scarier, and about a thousand times more evil. Stewart does capture some of the passive-aggressive menace of Stalin while making a sandwich and sharing it with men he is ordering to commit murder, but he is more silly than sinister in the banquet scene as he humiliates some of his lackeys.
If Mel Brooks ever makes a musical out of “Macbeth” – and I don't put it past him after his success with crap like “Young Frankenstein” – he will not be able to reprise Louis XVI's line from “The History of the World, Part I,” “It's good to the be the king!” Beyond holding the title, poor Macbeth never gets to enjoy the fruits of his damnable deeds. Conscienceless George Bush, with a 30 percent approval rating, is still getting to reward his corporate pals and torture his enemies. Macbeth can't even get through dinner without becoming unhinged.
All that said, Shakespeare is all about the language and Stewart is an unparalleled interpreter of this singular poetry – all the more an achievement since so many of Macbeth's soliloquies are imprinted on even average memories. His ability to get us to hear the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech as if new is perhaps worth the price of admission.