"MacBeth" theater production stars Patrick Stewart

February 14, 2008 6:34:28 PM PST
According to theater legend (admittedly, not the most reliable of sources), mentioning the name "Macbeth" backstage at a theater will bring bad luck to a production. So "The Scottish Play" is most likely the title being bandied about these days in the wings of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater where a thrilling, inventive re-imagining of one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays has set up shop.

In this mesmerizing production from England's Chichester Festival Theatre, director Rupert Goold has created a startling new universe for the play. "Macbeth" may be set in Scotland, but here it takes on the appearance of Stalinist Russia - with a few anachronistic touches thrown in to keep the audience a bit off-kilter.

Goold's idea for this tale of a violent, bloodlust journey to power is extravagant yet carefully thought-out with its use of video, projections, electronic music and in one instance, a replay of the famous banquet scene (featuring Banquo's ghost) from two different perspectives. There are reasons behind its bloody showiness, as a society spins out of control and Macbeth and his equally ambitious wife kill their way to the top of the kingdom.

And it helps that the title character is portrayed by Patrick Stewart, who, besides his celebrity from "Star Trek," is an accomplished classical actor. His appearances in "The Tempest" and a reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" have enlivened Broadway in past seasons.

The pantherlike Stewart has a steely resolve and a magnetism that makes you see why Lady Macbeth, his willing partner in treachery, was attracted to him in the first place. Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth is a revelation. She exudes the charisma of a glam 1930s movie star, fiercely prowling the wide Harvey stage.

The two possess a sexual magnetism, a connection to each other that makes their murderous collaboration more than credible. And Fleetwood does a compelling mad scene as she finds that getting away with murder always comes with a price.

Yet Stewart also captures the man's contradictions, primarily his inherent insecurity, his nervousness at having to continue to kill to keep what he gotten.

There is uniformly strong work from the entire cast but special mention should be made of Christopher Patrick Nolan's lascivious porter and the Macduff of Michael Feast. The actor provides a heart-stopping moment as Macduff learns his wife and children have been murdered.

One of Goold's most ingenious conceits is his depiction of the three weird sisters or witches, who foretell Macbeth's downfall. Here, they are nurses serving in a grim hospital and later in the play portray watchful, willful servants who swirl through the banquet scene.

Designer Anthony Ward has created an eerie, tiled all-purpose set (it looks like a morgue) that allows scenes to rapidly blend into each other.

One constant is a sink, which sits downstage throughout performance. It's here where Macbeth and his missus wash blood from their hands. The blood may disappear but their guilt does not.

Equally vivid - and indelible - is the memory of this superb production that runs through March 22.