Macbeth @ Gielgud Theatre, London

cast list
Patrick Stewart
Kate Fleetwood
Paul Shelley
Scott Handy
Ben Carpenter
Martin Turner
Michael Feast
Mark Rawlings
Tim Treloar
Bill Nash
Christopher Knott
Christopher Nolan

directed by
Rupert Goold
Rupert Goolds intensely claustrophobic Macbeth transfers very successfully from Chichesters studio Minerva Theatre to the larger proscenium Gielgud Theatre.

Like his previous collaboration with Patrick Stewart in The Tempest, this production is brimful of imagination and invention, backed by a striking visual style, so that you feel you are watching the play for the first time.

The show is set in an old Eastern European or Soviet-style totalitarian state, where a tyranny of terror reigns supreme. Anthony Wards highly effective design features a hellish basement kitchen in the Macbeths Glamis Castle, with a disturbingly cranky industrial lift descending with its unseen human (or ghostly) cargo ready to spring out in their Red Army uniforms.

What Goold does brilliantly is to find a convincing modern parallel for the brutal clannish society of medieval Scotland, which conveys strongly feelings of oppression and fear. In this CCTV surveillance culture, which the Stalinist-type dictator Macbeth establishes after murdering King Duncan, everybody watches everyone else anxiously, afraid to speak out in case they are betrayed. The result is a riveting political thriller, full of heightened suspense and moral murkiness, punctuated by bursts of visceral violence.

Goold certainly takes liberties with the text sometimes, with varying success. For example, having not just Macduff but his wife and children enter Glamis Castle increases the poignancy and horror when we see his family butchered later on at his castle in Fife, but having Macbeth himself as one of the murderers is a mistake. Also, Macbeth giving his Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow speech over Lady Macbeths dead body works well, but staging Banquos murder on a crowded passenger train rather than in quiet isolation seems silly.

In addition, Goold could be accused of trying to impress too much, forcing in too many ideas and innovations but when so many of them are so dramatically effective and reveal new insights into this (in)famous play, this seems a mean response. I loved the way, for instance, that the three witches (early on dressed as nurses in a battlefield operating theatre, when they cold-bloodedly kill their patient) later turn up in the guise of domestic servants at the Macbeths castle their evil presence continually hovers in the background.

The scene where the witches commune with their masters – twitching corpses in body bags – in foretelling the future in order to trick Macbeth into a false sense of security is brilliantly executed, as is the idea of turning Rosss passing on of information to a stranger into a torture confession.

But the most audacious innovation comes in the fest scene, where in some productions an actor embodies the murdered Banquos ghost while not in others, so that Macbeth is just haunted by his fevered imagination. In a stroke of genius, Goold does both, by playing most of the scene twice once just before the interval, once just after so that we see the events first from Macbeths point of view and then from his guests, puzzled and aghast at their hosts demented behaviour.

I have seen productions where Macbeth has been well played and Lady Macbeth poorly played (or vice versa) but this is the first time when Ive felt the nefarious couple are so strongly matched, in equally superb performances from Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. The shifting balance of power is nicely portrayed, as before Duncans assassination Macbeth is unsure and apprehensive while his wife bold and domineering, then afterwards she disintegrates into insanity and he hardens into a ruthless serial killer.

Although the 60-something Stewart may is perhaps rather long in the tooth to play a battle-scarred warrior, his forceful virile presence enables him to carry it off. In fact his age impacts on the interpretation in an interesting way, so that Macbeth comes across not so much as an ambitious man hungry for the crown as a veteran soldier who feels it is his right as saviour of his country. Stewarts performance becomes increasingly persuasive as we see Macbeths murderous paranoia turn into cynical world-weariness. Fleetwood is a chillingly sexy Lady Macbeth, capable of clinical cruelty but also using her feminine sensuality to get what she wants, until guilt drives her mad.

Michael Feast makes a big impact as Macbeths nemesis Macduff, especially in the moving scene when he hears the news of his familys slaughter his long drawn-out silence speaks volumes. And Christopher Patrick Nolan is terrific as an aggressively in your face Porter, playing him with such diabolical energy that you wonder if he is not just pretending to be Hells gatekeeper.

The portentous atmosphere is reinforced significantly by the unsettling music and sound effects of Adam Cork, the moody lighting changes of Howard Harrison and Lorna Heaveys video and projection design which includes newsreel of marching soldiers and hideous bloodstains on walls of the Macbeths subterranean lair.

This show is undoubtedly the most exciting theatrical depiction of the corrupting nature of power that I have ever seen. Spellbinding stuff!

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