Chichester Festival Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 22.
I know some people don’t enjoy or approve of anachronistic productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s true they can be gimmicky. But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare himself would have minded those directorial choices; after all, he included numerous clear anachronisms in his plays—note the chiming clocks, billiard games, and pistols of antiquity, for example—but more to the point, he unapologetically imposed the manners and behaviors of Elizabethan England onto a variety of other times and places. A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t really set in ancient Greece. The Winter’s Tale isn’t really set in Bohemia. And Macbeth isn’t really set in eleventh-century Scotland. So why cling to those settings? New settings can reinvigorate the plays, forcing us to reexamine them with new eyes.
This Chichester production of Macbeth is a good example of anachronism used well. Director Rupert Goold uses a relatively contemporary setting packed with Stalinist imagery, and that helps emphasize the idea that Macbeth isn’t just treacherous in rising to power but also in exercising that power. I admit I’d never really thought about that before, so wrapped up was I in all the intrigues and stratagems, but Goold makes it impossible to look at the story from such an amoral perspective. Macbeth is a tyrant, in every sense, and the creatively anachronistic production helps make that clear.
Patrick Stewart plays Macbeth with bluff heartiness and a fragile ego. He is significantly older than Kate Fleetwood, who pays Lady Macbeth, and the age disparity gives her many lines questioning his manhood real bite. I’m not a huge fan of Fleetwood’s cold, grim take on Lady Macbeth (I’m partial to a black-humored Richard III–esque interpretation), but that’s a matter of personal preference. And regardless of how I feel about Fleetwood’s individual performance, collectively she and Stewart have a creepy, volatile chemistry that serves them well. Their Lady and Lord Macbeth aren’t sympathetic, but they are captivating in a terrible sort of way.
That said, the witches are definitely my favorite aspect of the production. With them, Goold’s vision turns surreal, almost like a horror movie, liberating the sinister trio from rote “Double, double” sing-song and making them genuinely chilling. The “Double, double” scene is actually a good example of that. Actresses Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady deliver the familiar lines in an elaborately choreographed, polyphonic chant in a morgue. It’s unapologetically theatrical and not remotely cutesy; by the time they reach the immortal line, “Something wicked this way comes,” I was completely convinced that we were, in fact, dealing with something wicked, something evil—not merely ruthless opportunism and ambition but the complete corruption of a man’s soul.
This Macbeth isn’t about political gamesmanship gone bad. It’s about the rise and fall of a brutal totalitarian regime marked by torture, paranoia, unchecked surveillance, and widespread assassinations. Stewart plays a man who becomes a monster, but there’s surprising subtlety in the performance, an edge of madness shading his Macbeth from the very beginning yet a self-awareness, too, that Lady Macbeth seems to lack.
The conclusion of the production isn’t tragic in the sense of being regrettable or pitiable. To the contrary, Macbeth’s death is cathartic, particularly because it’s such a relief to watch Macduff avenge his slaughtered family. (Michael Feast’s performance is heartrending.) The tragedy here isn’t a personal tragedy, one man’s tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire oppressed nation, rent and bloodied by a coup and civil war. I hadn’t thought of Macbeth that way before—it always felt relatively narrow in its scope—but Goold, Stewart, and company opened my eyes and broadened my vision of what the centuries-old play could be.