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Macbeth, The Three Witches Arrive

Chichester Festival 2008 Production, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2/12-3/24/08

Rupert Goold– Director
Anthony Ward – Designer
Howard Harrison – Lighting Designer
Adam Cork – Music & Sound Designer
Lorna Heavey – Video & Projection Designer

Paul Shelley
– Duncan & A Scottish Doctor
Patrick Stewart – Macbeth
Tim Treloar – Ross
Martin Turner – Banquo
Oliver Birch – Cream-faced Loon
Suzanne Burden – Lady Macduff
Ben Carpenter – Donalbain & Young Seyward
Michael Feast – Macduff
Kate Fleetwood – Lady Macbeth
Christopher Patrick Nolan – Porter & Seyton
Mark Rawlings – Lennox
Scott Handy – Malcolm
Polly Frame – Witch & Gentlewoman
Niamh McGrady – Witch
Laura Rees – Witch
Hywel John – Bloody Captain & Murderer 1
Christopher Knott – Old Seyward & Murderer 2
Bill Nash – Angus


If the first performance of Macbeth (most likely some time in 1606 or 1607) was a historic event, it would have been that chiefly because it was the first time that a Scotsman was ever presented on a London stage as anything other than an object of ridicule and contempt. This obviously had much to do with King James’ Scottish origins, not one of his more popular traits, but surely to be respected, at least in public. But that is not Shakespeare’s only effort to please the monarch. James set great store by his descendence from Banquo, a major theme in the play. There is also a good deal about the nature of kingship and political legitimacy. Witchcraft, a favorite topic of James’, on which he wrote a learned treatise, is close to its core and ubiquitous, even amplified by interpolations which provided an opportunity to make the witch scenes even more vivid through music, spectacle, and dance.

The Macbeths, Patrick Stewart & Kate Fleetwood, photo Tristram Kenton

The Macbeths, Patrick Stewart & Kate Fleetwood, photo Tristram Kenton

Today English xenophobia of bygone days barely touches us; Jacobites and even monarchists are few, although witchcraft, I hear, is making a comeback. What is left for us in this play? Certainly enough to have given it consistent popularity since the Restoration. Tastes change, but, apart from the witches, audiences remain fascinated by the headlong descent of a brave, resourceful, and hardly stupid man down a precipice of murder and tyranny. He shows some scruples in the beginning: is he to some degree a victim of his wife, who is even more determined than he, willingly casting aside her womanly nature to accomplish her end? The atmosphere is powerful, as is the dread evoked by the witches, evil creatures who alone are totally conscious of what is going on and where it is headed. However much stage blood a producer may be willing to commit to it, the play is violent, beginning and ending with battles, which are connected by a string of brutal murders and a suicide. What’s more, although it is a relatively brief play (conforming to another one of James’ preferences), the language is rich and full of color, even densely so, not only for Macbeth, but for his Lady, and pretty much the entire cast. Several of the speeches, or at least shreds of them, haunt our collective consciousness. Macbeth has been a prime vehicle for ambitious actors and actresses since the days of Garrick and Pritchard. Ultimately it may be its potency as a vehicle for brilliant performances that has sealed its fate. And yes, and it is also true that most people who are likely to see a performance of Macbeth today believe that the moral and practical consequences of killing people is unacceptable, as the play amply demonstrates.

If you ask a theater-goer who has been around long enough about Macbeth, you are likely to hear a lot about unforgettable Macbeths and Lady Macbeths than about the productions. You may also hear stories of great individual performances by lord or lady or both amidst disastrously bad productions, or productions which simply didn’t work entirely. This has grown into a superstition which goes back many years, that the play is cursed with bad luck. Actors can be a superstitious lot, and it is common for them to give considerable thought to remedies, which extend beyond the normal range of theatrical technique. It is said that Patrick Stewart knows an interesting and rather elaborate method of breaking the spell, and after seeing the 2007 Chichester Festival production at BAM last week (It opened at the Lyceum on Broadway this evening.), it is clear that it must work.

On the other hand, whatever magic was done seemed rather to have been conjured by the cast as a whole with Mr. Stewart as primus inter pares, and especially the director Rupert Goold and his team of designers: stage, lighting, music and sound, video and projection. There was no weak link sticking out here, making this state-of-the-art production a poster child for sort of multi-media stage work which has emerged over the past twenty years or so. As impressive and finely worked as the visual and sonic background were, they never once distracted me from the actors and Shakespeare…well hardly ever: I did occasionally catch myself gazing at the digitally synthesized projections for the sheer pleasure of it. As admirable as Stewart’s Macbeth may be, the curse was clearly overcome by a perfect co-ordination of all elements and Rupert Goold’s savvy understanding of the craft developed by the great ensemble directors of the older generation, most of them connected with the RSC at one time or another: Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, John Barton, and others. Goold works with their morphology and syntax—co-ordinated ensemble, meticulously studied diction, movement, rhythm, updated, simplified costumes, historical transference, etc.—with a highly developed understanding of how they work. For example the metaphorical setting—costumes and visuals which suggest the age of Stalin in the USSR—remains somewhat in the background in the earlier scenes, coming to the fore in Act III, especially in the jarring—dramaturgically speaking, alienating—scene 3, in which the murders attack Banquo in a dismal Soviet train, a world away from the environs of a Scottish castle. Soviet Realien are here realized in the most concrete mundane detail, to shocking effect. The Stalinist imagery is carried on literally from there through projections of Soviet parades and stage action, e.g. the continuance of the Macbeth’s “solemn supper” with aluminium service, brutal jokes, and inebriated Polkas—all a vivid evocation of Stalin’s notorious revels in his dacha. As the action continues, and Shakespeare concentrates on the future of Scotland, the Soviet imagery recedes and hints of Scotland appear, not least in the form of traces of a Scottish accent, in which Stewart’s Yorkshire burr serves well. By exploiting historical transference in this self-conscious way, Goold is able to gain control of its metaphorical force and to avoid pushing Scotland entirely into the background. It would, after all, be a mistake to universalize Macbeth entirely.

Now before I start again from the opening tableau, I should mention how much BAM, its bleak neighborhood on a rainy afternoon, and the cavernous ruin of its lounge enhanced the effect of the stage. The industrial tile wall pierced left of center by an elevator seemed like part of the backstage itself, although it has in fact made the journey from Chichester to London to Brooklyn. Through the course of the performance, this claustrophobic wall suggests first an operating room in a hospital, a kitchen in Macbeth’s castle, a torture chamber, a revival hall, and so forth. Towards the right, a cupboard/refrigerator surmounted by an old-fashioned black and white television, plays its own significant role. Over it, the digital projections include abstract patterns suggestive of human violence or supernatural influence, bloody phantasms, and specific human activities, like the vast parades mentioned above. At the left of the front of the stage there is a sink in which a great deal of hand-washing takes place, as well as the Porter’s manful pissing.

The witches, dressed as nurses, do their opening business over a Captain who delivers his background narrative from an operating table. He could not be in more malevolent hands, as the flat line on the television screen eventually shows. The witches, with only slight adjustments to their costume, as servants, waitresses, even in their own true guise, etc., are a constant presence throughout the play, assuming the personae of the ancient Greek Erinyes, bringing ruin wherever they go. With their severe uniforms, bloodless faces, and sooty eyes, they are actually scary, and they are most effective in creating the sense of supernatural dread essential to the production, as well as the suggestion of Greek parallels, which here prove entirely convincing.

As the fearsome row of the opening scene dies down, we can appreciate the painstaking and original approach to Shakespeare’s language taken by Goold and his company. True to John Barton’s precedent, the lines are delivered with consistent clarity as well as a keen appreciation of Shakespeare’s rhythms and syntax. Further, the characters’ utterances sound natural, as if they were actually communicating with one another in real situations. This balance of poetic diction, clarity, and a convincing illusion of the real is extraordinary and a truly original feature of this production. Along with this goes Mr. Goold’s emphasis on telling the story, which is what gives this production its weight and power. The story of Macbeth is so familiar, and a focus on the play’s rhetoric has become so deeply entrenched by tradition, that this is actually not an easy feat. Alfred Harbage once said that Macbeth is essentially a simple play and a simple story, but how difficult it has been for directors to achieve this! Here. Rupert Goold, with a simple set, a top-notch cast, but the most advanced lighting and digital projections available, has achieved this simple end.

From this perfection of the shape and rhythm of Shakespeare’s language comes polished ensemble work. The entire cast are at the same high level of accomplishment. Each of the secondary characters establishes a strong presence from the beginning, even if their first entrances give them little to go on, and when they get their chance to unfold, they do it naturally. Beyond that timing and the rhythm of interaction are impeccable. The flow of this production even has something of a symphonic feel in the power of its current and its energy of gesture.

Macbeth, Act I Scene I

Macbeth, Act I Scene I

As I said, the actors are universally excellent and tightly knit, and it would not make sense to single out any individual performance. The names are listed above. Any one of them could hold their own in a principle role. Yet many of the capacity audiences have been drawn by Patrick Stewart, who has finally become a big name, most deservedly so. When I was a student in the early 1970’s I used to make the trip from Oxford to Stratford often, and over those three years I rarely missed a production. Back then, even in small roles, Stewart’s presence was impressive, as was his command of movement and diction, not to mention his voice, which then, as now, resonated like thunder in a closed valley. For all that, he remained an ensemble actor, tempering his gifts to fit into his proper place. I think he would agree that the highest praise I can give him is that he maintains that sense of ensemble throughout the play, in Macbeth, of all roles, a role as enormous as Othello or Lear. Without a doubt the strengths of the this production are Patrick Stewart’s strengths, and Goold most likely achieved his unity of style by encouraging the rest of the cast to follow Stewart’s lead. On the other hand Stewart concentrates relentlessly on his interlocutors, and takes pains to blend in. When he begins one of the great speeches, which he delivers with a meticulously thought-out intensity, in a manner all his own, we barely notice it, so subtle are his transitions. No, perhaps I am being doctrinaire, Stewart’s approach to every aspect of his role is carefully considered and thoroughly original, and that is the essence of his achievement.

There is no way the arch-villaness of theater, Lady Macbeth, can blend into an almost entirely male cast, as her husband can. By nature the character is extreme. While Macbeth’s evil deeds lead him to self-awareness in the end (“I have lived long enough…Act V sc. 3), Lady Macbeth’s lead her to madness and suicide. Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth appears as the young trophy wife of an older man, which makes her aggressiveness entirely convincing. She has her ambition, just as her husband has his. Youth gives her an urgent desire to seize the moment. Her first exhortation of Macbeth, as he shows hesitation in dispatching Malcolm’s attendants, is a good wifely tongue-lashing rather than the sinister domination of a weak man, which this Macbeth is decidedly not. At the beginning she is something of a realist. Fleetwood’s performance is full of imagination and color and shows an impressive psychological range. Although Lady Macbeth is the more single-minded of the couple at the beginning, her complexity proves an ideal foil to Macbeth’s commitment to expedience at the end. Between them, her taunts impugning his manhood can transpire freely without undue emphasis, and the audience can appreciate the motifs of Macbeth’s questioned manliness and fecundity without phallic symbols or any other anachronistic enhancement.

A capital virtue of this production is that it aims at unity. It would not make sense to single out any individual scenes as particularly memorable, although Goold’s daring division of the banquet scene by the interval is quite a feat. It is so astonishing that I should perhaps not give it away. Let us say that the curtain comes down in mediis rebus, with Banquo’s ghost’s appearance. After that, it is replayed in part, but differently. The first enactment of Macbeth’s consultation with the murderers is a good example of how this production approaches narrative, and the second even more so. The murder of Macduff’s family is spot-on. Lady Macduff is thoroughly bitter. There is no hope or any other mitigation in her condemnation of her husband for abandoning her and their children at peril. Her acerbity and the discretion of her exchange with her son makes this by far the most successful treatment of this scene I have witnessed. Usually one is ready to applaud the slaughter of that precocious brat as a humanitarian deed. (In Shakespeare’s time the by-play of the two boys playing the roles of mother and son probably lightened the effect.) Also Macduff and Malcolm’s meeting in England, usually cut more heavily than it is here, is cleverly managed, with Edward the Confessor’s holiness expressed in a temperance meeting, with pious songs accompanied by an upright piano, crowned with a virtuous ewer of water.

In spite of all this evidence of planning and hard work in this performance, you are probably dying to know what Patrick Stewart’s miraculous spell might be. As, A. R. Braunmuller reports in his edition of Macbeth (Cambridge 1997, p. 1 n.) it founded on the premise that the bad luck originates from quoting lines from the play outside a theater. To relieve the curse, one must immediately quote the same number of lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe I have quoted seven words in this review. Here goes. I hope I’ve been sufficiently prompt:

“In very likeness of a roasted crab…”


There have been a number of interviews published about this now famous production. Here are a few:

Rupert Goold: interview Rachel Halliburton. (Time Out London)

Questions for Rupert Goold, director of Macbeth (Feb 12—Mar 22), from Joseph V. Melillo, BAM’s Executive Producer.

Bloody Great! Patrick Stewart discusses playing the title role in Rupert Goold’s acclaimed production of Macbeth. (

BBC Patrick Stewart Interview (video)

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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