October 8, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Macbeth (Chichester Festival) @ The Gielgud Theatre
Have you ever left the room during a cup final to hear the roars behind you telling you you’ve just missed the crucial goal? Or left a gig early only to be told about the secret encore afterwards? Or gone to see your favourite actor in a play only to find out the understudy’s had to take his place? If so, you may understand the way I’m feeling after this weekend’s production of Macbeth. Robbed.
Unfortunately, I have nothing to blame this on apart from the theatre. Or, more to the point, my seats in the theatre. Right up in the upper circle, with a bunch of schoolkids (why a school trip on a saturday night?!) kicking me and only the distant shape of Patrick Stewart’s head from which to make out a performance.
Distance doesn’t always matter in the theatre, of course, but Rupert Goold’s Chichester Festival production of Macbeth is an actor’s production. Being hailed in the press as one of the greatest productions of this play ever, its strength is quite clearly the towering performances of Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the lead roles. Or so I’ve heard. Because from where I was I could see nothing of the subtlety or expression that I’m sure he was giving out. This did, admittedly, lead me to concentrate more on the actors’ tremendous voice work, and Stewart’s distinctive gravitas and wry humour were as wonderful as ever. Alas, though, the “Best Macbeth ever” was lost to me. The soliloquies became just a distant man speaking the lines with no way of telling what he was actually doing with them. It’s not totally the theatre’s failling- a good actor should be able to play to the whole house, and Stewart’s performance did not stretch up to us. No wonder the kids behind us were so bored. It’s Michael Boyd who commented on the fact that children would never form a bond with Shakespeare if they were kept so far away from him.
The grievances of distance aside, there was an interesting production to be seen. The critics raved about the sheer amount of ideas thrown into the mix (an interesting turnaround for several reviewers who usually despise “buggering about with the Bard”. My guess is that it’s acceptable when you have a star name in the lead), and with good cause. The production found a home in the underground bunkers of the Second World War, a dank kitchen/hospital ward staffed by three Nightingale nurses, the witches. Our introduction to them saw them inject the bloodied sergeant with poison, and throughout the production they waited on the nobles, prepared food and generally watched over events with a suitably terrifying air. The distance here helped- unable to see their faces, they became even more mysterious and inhuman.
The new setting led for some wonderful moments. The final scenes took on the air of a Downfall style climax with the underground bunker being stormed, and Young Seyward’s death was a particularly shocking highlight: approaching Macbeth with a knife, the tyrant casually pulled out a gun and shot him without a moment’s consideration. Banquo’s murder was even better, with the cast creating a passenger train out of chairs and bodies and the two murderers dressed as ticket inspectors making their way up the train, passing Banquo a cup filled with poison for a death Bond would have been proud of.
Rupert Goold reprised many of the features that helped and hindered his Tempest at the RSC last year. Projections were used to good effect to hint at the outside world being changed drastically from the tiny bunker and, memorably, to show reams of spiralling blood during the ghost scenes. Less welcome was his surprisingly static approach to dialogue. Scenes heavy on conversation were generally given an interesting set up but then the actors were left to make the best they could of it. This was true of the England scene, despite an excellent turn from Michael Feast’s Macbeth. Goold had clearly also been studying Gregory Doran’s RSC production, the Porter in particular being taken almost wholesale from that excellent production.
The high concepts worked well too. The rapping dance of the witches was a welcome change of tone, and their Frankensteinian reanimation of corpses for the prophecies was effective. The banquet scene was begun before the interval showing Macbeth’s view of events, including the conversation with the murderer and the physical appearance of the bloodied Banquo from the lift. After the interval, though, the scene was repeated from the point of view of the rest of the diners, with no ghost appearing. Later, a parlour dance became a dance macabre as Macbeth found himself waltzing the ghost.
This was an actors’ show though, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood were undoubtedly the highlights. Stewart brought a twisted humanity to the role which came across when addressing the body of his wife and in his final moments as he considered putting the pistol in his own mouth. His final defeated “Enough” as he saw the witches and allowed Macduff the victory was less of a defeat than it sounds, finally taking control of his inevitable destiny. Fleetwood too was wonderful, bringing vulnerability to a part too often taken to extremes of evil. Even without the proximity the Chichester audiences had the two leads carried the production and made for a very enjoyable, if often frustrating, evening. Not the best Macbeth ever, but definitely an important one.