Patrick Stewart, an RSC actor so well-known for Star Trek and The X-Men that it seems redundant to “link” him, performed The Scottish Play in London in 2007, then transported it “over the pond,” to play a run on Broadway in 2008. Mr. Stewart (beg pardon, Sir Patrick) was brilliant; I would hands-down call him the finest Macbeth that I have ever seen- except that I have seen Ian McKellen’s performance (in the filmed version of his 1979 RSC run, opposite Judi Dench). Therefore- having seen Mr. McKellen (beg pardon, Sir Ian’s) turn, I cannot say that Sir Patrick’s is the best I have watched; but then, because I have seen Sir Patrick, I cannot call Sir Ian the finest Macbeth of my acquaintance. Ms. Dench (beg pardon, Dame Judi) is hands-down the most fabulous Lady Macbeth, like ever (or at least since Ms. Siddons was so famous for the role in the 18th century).
The many impressive qualities of Stewart’s performance aside- being of course a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, the man’s vocal delivery was extraordinary; he had been performing the role for some serious time (already, in England), so by the time he got to New York with it, he had it “down” (this was absolutely the first Macbeth I have ever seen that made the part look as if it were easy to do); he played the role with a fascinating wounded, haunted quality that was very different from the usual Bloody Thane. This was a Macbeth that from the very get-go was fearful of his plans- yet unable to resist carrying them through.
A very interesting feature of the production was to pair Mr. Stewart (an actor admittedly on the plus-side of middle age) opposite a markedly younger, hot wife. We had the sense of the current Lady Macbeth as perhaps the second Lady Macbeth, and a bit of a trophy-wife. This created an interesting dynamic, as one got the impression that Mr. Stewart’s Macbeth would be quite content to live a peaceable retirement with his hot-babe wife, devoting his days to Scotch and golf, perhaps. Alas- his hot trophy-wife has burnings for a Queenship, and Stewart’s Macbeth seemed very reluctant not to gratify her desires.
The show was produced at the Lyceum Theater, a fantastic Beaux-Arts structure built in 1903. As one might expect, it was influenced by basically the late 1800s, and serves as marvelous jewel of an example of a relatively cozy, wonderfully ornate Old-Style playhouse. (One thing that really confuses me is, what in the world did they do with their bodily functions back in 1903? The lavatory accomodations appear to be closet-spaces sort of partitioned off under the eaves, at least in the balcony. They seem remarkably unsuitable for large groups of people, particularly in an era when women customarily had voluminous skirts with which to contend.)
Well, the point is- the Lyceum was a terrific, 1800s-style venue in which to watch this early 1600s play.
As to the show itself, setting aside the performances (which were all excellent): this was a British production, carried across the “pond” to the United States, and therefore represents a bit of a difference in the way that Shakespeare is “put up” in England, compared with how Yanks tend to do it, over here.
The British, the Gods love and adore the British- the British are devoted patrons of the Theatrical Arts, especially Mr. Shakespeare: to the extent that they can get rather tired (it seems) of “just” putting up the plays, and so the Brits (Gods love their theater-producing hearts) will “interpret” Shakespeare’s plays all over the place. (This is a very different approach than that taken by American Shakespeareans, who have a tendency to take the script, and put it up- as faithfully, and in as straightforward a manner as we might manage. We Yanks tend to eschew dressing up Shakespeare with “interpretation” so much, feeling it better to allow his texts to do their own speaking, on their own terms.)
The British (I think) can get bored with this attitude (as they have been producing and performing Shakespeare with such intense devotion for four centuries, I guess “merely” doing the plays seems old-hat to them, by now). Mr. Stewart’s Broadway production of Macbeth, therefore was an example of a British Shakespeare production “interpreted” all to death.
It was set in “Europe” just prior to World War I (the background battles were presented then as WWI conflicts, and the Witches were WWI nurses- but weird, strange, demented WWI nurses). A major point that this production wished to make was (apparently) a connection between the desire for power and eating- the desire for food serving as a metaphor for the yearn to possess worldly might. The kitchen of the Macbeth castle (therefore) served as the backdrop to a number of scenes. Sometimes this worked alright (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspiring murder while they snack in a midnight raid on the icebox, ok). Sometimes this went crazily amiss: having established the kitchen as the operative location in Castle Macbeth- King Duncan’s first entrance into the Macbeth’s home was through the kitchen-door, as Lady Macbeth scurried around directing the kitchen-servants in preparing dinner, an apron tied about her fetching waist.
They bring- the King of Scotland- into the Macbeth’s castle- through the kitchen-door.
I was like, sure- cause that’s so often how royalty was treated in the early 1900s; they would bring you in through the kitchen- while the mistress of the manor had her apron on.
This was this weird kind of wordless interlude where all the characters sat down and played musical chairs- intended I guess to demonstrate something about the ephemeral nature of worldly power (?); after the show, my friend asked me what was the deal with that part, and I said, I don’t know: I’ve never seen a production do that before.
Oddly, they performed exactly one-half of the Banquet Scene- up until Banquo’s blood-splattered Ghost shows up to haunt Macbeth. Then- swear to the Gods- they brought the curtain down for intermission.
After intermission- up comes the curtain; and they act out in pantomime the portion of the scene that came before- and then pick up and deliver the rest of this really spooky freak-Macbeth-out scene. (It just didn’t work; it just didn’t.)
Never mind all of this. If one goes to Macbeth, one goes to see Witches in action (or at least I do, and I’m pretty sure that Witches were a major draw for the play back in the Jacobean days); in this production, the Witches Scenes were a mess, just a huge mess.
Part of the problem in putting up the Witches Scenes these days is (and I’m counting back through three separate productions here: Theater For A New Audience; Cheek By Jowl; and Mr. Stewart’s; none of which I count as having had a success, Witch-wise), I don’t think people understand how to do the Witches. Because I think there is a ritual- a pattern- a logic and an intelligent sensibility to how the Witches enact their Scenes, and I think that this logic reflects an understanding of how to perform Jacobean Witchcraft (which Witchcraft, I think, is also familiar to modern Wicca Witches, if they study it carefully enough).
The Broadway production starring Patrick Stewart did not really quite appreciate this perspective, I feel. This was a production that stressed the bizarre, the surreal, the grotesque, and the sensory-overwhelming as their approach to the Witches. My friend and I were both astounded when the Witches “rapped” their lines, an interesting way to bring relevance to Shakespeare’s tragedy. At the same time- World War I Witch-Nurses- rapping?
The big Witches’ Scene (IV.i, likely as not the scene everyone in an audience has gone to the theater anticipating) was a wreck. Being wartime Nurses, the Witches wheeled out killed soldiers dressed in body-bags, who delivered the famous prophecies. The Witches (bizarrely) began acting like short-circuiting robots (for real; I remember one who kept trying to walk through a wall, unable to comprehend in her “short-circuiting robot-head” that she could not). The Witches are rapping their lines like mad; strobe-lights start going like craziness; these body-bag corpses are prophesying all over the place; Patrick Stewart is acting all freaked-out.
The whole thing was this bizarre assault upon the rational senses, intended to overwhelm the mind- there was no sense of a methodical progression through a supernatural ritual, intended finally to function as a sort of seance, and it was finally over in what seemed like a minute.
Patrick Stewart was brilliant as Macbeth; the production had its shortfalls; the treatment of the Witches was a disaster. If you ever wanted to study The Scottish Play from the point-of-view, how to enact a Jacobean Ritual of Witchcraft?: this production would have left you mystified.