February 28, 2008

The Weird Sisters at BAM (A Review): Macbeth

It's a shame that a play as old as William Shakespeare's Macbeth should seem so relevant, but it is, anyway you slice it. Watching the Chichester Festival Theatre's compelling production, now playing to sold-out audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and set in a bleak totalitarian landscape, I was reminded too many times of the cruelties of contemporary warfare and the devastating consequences of acquiring political might for its own sake. Also, Nature gone haywire is a strong theme of the play, so the political tragedy is conjoined with environmental destruction.

Director Rupert Goold stages the play in a cold prison-like room, equipped with a refrigerator, a sink and a gated elevator with prison bars, that serves as torture chamber, operating room, military operations room, and banquet facility. Blood and wine, ripped flesh and a sandwich all share the same room. The effective lighting and sound design send up harsh lights and loud sounds, leaving little else to humanize the setting. Video projections of goose-stepping soldiers leave not much interpretation to chance.

Patrick Stewart, as Macbeth, plays the Scottish general as a coarse, superstitious and unsophisticated tyrant. He's barely aware of the consequences of his actions and only knows how to get more blood on his hands. Don't expect the big confidant voice of Captain Picard here, because Stewart brilliantly interprets Macbeth's language with short, clipped phrasing in a more shallow register. He physically conveys Macbeth as a small man at the outset of the play but then seems to grow larger and more swaggering in his speech as he becomes more dangerous. Stewart informs his performance with a reading of the life of Joseph Stalin, and the applied knowledge goes a long way in dragging the character uncomfortably to the modern era.

Macbeth's sexy, ambitious Lady, strongly played by Kate Fleetwood, stands by her man, effectively conveying how she's thwarted any softness on his behalf. During the banquet scene, played twice from different points of view, she's the hostess-with-the-most-est, laughing off Macbeth's delusions in order to save a good party. Her famous sleepwalk is chilling, one of the powerful signs that Nature has exacted revenge on these human violators. The play's most notable sign of the troubles brewing in "the fog and filthy air" is the inability to sleep, and Lady Macbeth's descent into guilt and madness compounds the tragedy.

The "weird sisters," as the witches are called, certainly the most memorable from anyone's youthful reading of the play, live up to their billing in this production. The weird sisters, dressed as '30s-era nurses, conjure a powerful trio as they shriek, scare, assist and entertain. The three convey several meanings with their incantation of the famous "trouble."

The ensemble cast is strong throughout, especially Martin Turner as Banquo, a powerful and worthy threat to the protagonist, Michael Feast as the rival Macduff, and Tim Treloar, making the most of Ross. Suzanne Burden conveys well the shock and fear of Lady Macduff, and watching the tragedy that awaits her and her precious children quickens the unfolding catastrophe. The Aristotelian cause-and-effect grows darker, more complex, more "unnatural," right up until the very end of "the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen."

A must-see production, if only to bear witness to these unnatural acts.

After concluding its run at BAM, the Chichester Festival Theatre's Macbeth begins performances at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway on March 29. 3 hours including intermission. (Playbill info )

(Note to Readers: Strangely, for a website that is mostly light-hearted, this is my second post with a mention of the Stalinist terror. The first citation was my homage to Leon Trotsky's young boy who, while living with his parents in New York, left home one day to see if there was a 1st Street. He later died in the Stalinist purges.)

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