Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

I saw Patrick Stewart do Macbeth tonight, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a lovely evening. It’s freezing today and I trekked out there, and emerged into the utter chaos of Atlantic and Flatbush. A couple was having a screaming fight about a drug deal gone awry on the sidewalk. The girl shouted, “There’s fuckin’ police all around us right now. They’re already curious about what we talkin’ about – let’s get the fuck outta here!” And then. The Scottish play! Perfect. It was like I had already seen the Flatbush Avenue version of “Unsex me here”! I had a glass of wine in the lobby, warming up, and people milled about, and it was a wonderful atmosphere. At intermission, a couple struck up a conversation with me about the play, and it was great fun. We were trying to figure out where the hell Banquo was going when he ran off before intermission. We missed a line of dialogue or something. I mean, I get that he knows he will be killed. But where the hell you going, bro? But it was fun. I liked them. They were wondering who MacDuff was – they hadn’t caught his name. “Who was that man with the wife and kids?” “That was MacDuff – he’s a noble who was really close with Duncan. And I hate to break it to you, but his whole family is dunzo in the next act.” hahahaha

This production (highly acclaimed in England, and now here for a run) takes place in Stalinist Russia, which I loved. It had a more chilly quality than some other productions of it I’ve seen. The set was stark and bare, no scene changes. They used video projections during certain sections – which was QUITE effective, for the most part. Like the forest moving. That was projected. Things abstracted, becoming more and more fragmented – as Macbeth and his Lady wife slowly went mad. There were a couple of moments – just a couple – when I thought it was over-produced. The play itself, just as a work of literature, is terrifying. It’s one of the most gruesome of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I mean, the monologue that reports on the deaths of MacDuff’s family – you just get the picture in your head of children screaming and being slaughtered. You really don’t need to add TOO much to it. For the most part, I thought the video projections were awesome (the visions of enormous totalitarian armies marching, with Soviet-esque banners waving – very evocative) – but a couple times I was pulled out of it.

Patrick Stewart was incredible. His soliloquies … God, he didn’t hit a wrong note. I had a moment when he was doing the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue where I almost got disoriented and I didn’t know what to focus on. First of all, his performance of it – quiet, bitter, underplayed – he just SAID it … was marvelous. You just lost yourself in it. But because of that, I was suddenly struck by the words – yet again … you know, it’s easy to take Shakespeare for granted. And to hear it – really HEAR it … to hear that language, to hear those words that are so well-known now, so damn famous … and to realize, as though for the first time, just how damn brilliant Shakespeare is. It’s like being in the actual presence of God. Or a higher power. Whatever you want to call it. It’s beyond “good”. It is an emanation of a deep and human truth, passed down through the ages … and here it is. Before us. A man wrote this. A human being wrote this.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It boggles the mind.

Kate Fleetwood played Lady Macbeth like Eva Peron. She thristed for power. She emasculates her husband like a pro. Patrick Stewart’s body language in response to her “are you a man?” comments was wonderful. Subtle, and eloquent. He just kind of collapsed, a little bit. Not hugely. But he strutted in in their first scene together – and she embraced him, and they were kissing, and passionate – saying their opening lines – eating each other up, his hands all over her, her breasts, her thighs … and then she starts going off on what she thinks needs to happen next, and she is so far beyond him at that point, she is so much further down the path … that he is struck dumb, in response. A bit helpless. What is she asking me to do? He is wearing military garb, combat boots, he is the picture of a virile strutting man. But Lady Macbeth just unmasks him, disarms him … He is helpless and she uses that against him. She was terrific.

I have seen so many terrible “Out damn’d spot” monologues … you know, the actress uses it as an opportunity to become a gibbering gleaming-eyed maniac. Kate Fleetwood was real. And because it was real to her – she WAS out of her mind. Her hands writhed about, and I actually started feeling the sticky blood all over MY hands, just watching her. This was no kitchen-sink acting. She rose to the occasion. But without any fanfare. The play is horrifying. It’s horrifying in its action, and the plot points. But even more so – it is horrifying psychologically. The two of them cannot stop their ambition, and for a moment – all seems possible. But to live with the repercussions, to walk through life knowing that murder got you there … neither of them are up to that.

The relationship those two created was fantastic. You believed they were husband and wife. They played all the notes right. The chiding, the sex, the way they know what the other person is going to say even before the words are out … They were marvelous together.

But my favorite part of the whole production – was how they handled the witches. SO GOOD. SO SO GOOD. Those witches are tough, man … tough to play (and I should know, since I played one of them once, in a production so bad it still makes me shiver – post about it here, and photos here, here, here … horrors. I heard some of my lines come back to me in the play at BAM and felt a shiver of shame. “Doubtless it stood …” ACK!). It’s so easy to go over the top. And how do you make “double double toil and trouble” scary?? It so easily can just be SILLY.

These witches were truly frightening. BRAVO. To the director and the production design, the costume design … who came up with the theme for those witches. They were omnipresent. They weren’t isolated out in a wild heath (the way I’ve seen it done in many productions) … they weren’t cackling and rubbing their hands over a froggy-filled fire. They all wore grey institutional dresses, with white aprons, and white veils on their heads. They were either nurses on the battlefield, or workers in the kitchen. They were in disguise. They took on many guises. They were all of the same physical type – young women, thin, probably 22, 23 years old. Little thin women. You couldn’t tell them apart, they were identical. And they scared the SHIT out of me.

great work. I have never before seen a production of Macbeth where the witches were actually frightening. These girls were malevolent. They had the bodies of teenagers, but they were dressed as rigid identical matrons. Black tights, black shoes. They chopped up food in the kitchen, wielding knives, slashing at bread, and then carrying it to the table, holding the knife behind them in a clenched fist. The action went on around them, but they were always there. And occasionally – Patrick Stewart would glance up at one of them, and hesitate for a bit. It would give him a start. Do I know that girl? Have I seen her before? She ladles soup onto my plate … but there’s something about her … she seems familiar …

The witches were my favorite part of the show. Very innovative. I’ve never seen them handled so well.

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16 Responses to Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you for letting us know the details and your insights. Sigh.

  2. Lisa says:

    Yeah, yeah, but did that witch’s clothes come off?

  3. red says:

    Kelly – it was absolutely my pleasure. I am thrilled I went to go see it.

  4. red says:

    Lisa – it took me a second to get the joke, but now I do. Ha!!

  5. Ken says:

    I’m glad you got to see it. It sounds terrific.

  6. Marissa says:

    Thanks for writing about this production. I saw it last weekend and just wrote about it on my own blog, but the director made so many strong and original choices that there is much to discuss! I loved things like the theatricality of Banquo’s murder, or the two scenes surrounding intermission.

    I think you got a little more out of this production than I did, though. Where were you sitting? I was up in the next-to-last row of the balcony, so it was sometimes hard to feel involved in what was happening onstage. Glad that this didn’t happen to you!

  7. red says:

    Marissa – I was in the 6th row – so yes, it felt like I was right in the action.

    And yes – that Banquo reappearing moment at the end of the act was fantastic!!! And I too just loved how they replayed it at the beginning of the second act … only without him actually there – so you could really see how Macbeth was coming across to others. Great stuff, I thought!!

  8. red says:

    Also, how terrific it was to hear “When shall we three meet again?” get a laugh! Not because it’s a funny line but because you realize the witches have been onstage all along – just in disguise. Loved that.

    I’ll go read your post when I have a second – very excited to hear your thoughts on it!

  9. nightfly says:

    Great review. I’m going to forego stupid Python jokes and just say thank you for the criitque. I honestly think you’re one of the best reviewers I’ve ever read .

  10. ricki says:

    Wow, it sounds fantastic. (But then, I’d envy anyone getting to see Patrick Stewart do Shakespeare).

    Interesting setting – I’ve seen a few Shakespeare plays (mainly comedies, actually) that were re-set in different eras and unfortunately some of them didn’t work so well (or maybe they didn’t work well for me; maybe I’m just being a Philistine). But this re-setting sounds very well-done and works with the themes of the play.

  11. Marti says:

    Ooooh. That sounds incredible. I loves me some Patrick Stewart.

  12. Marti says:

    Lisa: It was too late. He’d already seen everything.

  13. red says:

    Marissa – just read your post. Totally agree with you about the “pause-y” nature of this production. There was one pause in, I think, one of malcolm’s speech that seemed so random that I thought he might have forgotten his lines. It was so long! Didn’t really work for me.

    And there were a couple of over-produced moments, I thought (sound and lights … signifying nothing. Ahem) … but I loved the murder on the train, that was really wonderfully done, I thought.

  14. Marissa says:

    Thanks for taking a look at my post, Sheila. I think I know the pause of Malcolm’s that you’re talking about! And I agree that some of the sound and video was overproduced (especially because I was up in the balcony with a speaker RIGHT next to me)–plus I had trouble reconciling the 21st-century video style with the 1940s/50s costumes.

  15. Mich-L says:

    Patrick Stewart as Macbeth! Absolutely fabulous! I am so jealous that you can walk out your door –get on that little spanish bus and ride into town to immerse yourself in these wonderful experiences! I did Macbeth once…a soliloquy “Out…out damn spot” and you stood behind the curtain in the Music Room…feeding me the lines!! HAAAA! Diane never knew!!Thank you for that…you are a true friend!!:)

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