Shakespeare seems so dry, so removed from our times, that it is hard to imagine it having a deep, visceral impact. Richard Foreman once said that all theater is about death because in the act of freezing it and performing it exactly, over and over, we've killed it. If that's true, then Shakespeare has been dead for hundreds of years. The production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Rupert Goold and staring Patrick Stewart (Macbeth) and Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth), does create that visceral feeling. This is what a remounting of a classic should be: absolutely grounded in our guts.
The set, designed by Anthony Ward, provides an immediate base from which the play can already begin its powerful effect. It is gray and dingy, at once recalling ugly kitchens, sinister morgues, interrogation rooms, or whatever gloomy industrial needs one might have. As the play progresses, a few small moving set pieces are all that is needed to transform this set into whatever locale is needed.
Meanwhile, an equally sinister story is being told onstage. Macbeth and his companion Banquo (Martin Turner) come back from the war as heroes, but a prophecy from three demonic sisters (Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, Niamh McGrady) gives him an appetite for more: he and his wife collude to murder the King of Scotland, and everyone who stands in their way.
The play has a very distinct tone, set in place not only by the set, but also by powerful sound choices from designer Adam Cork, subtle lighting design by Howard Harrison, and video/projection design by Lorna Heavey. The tone was very distinctly set, creating a very heavy and sometimes overpoweringly suspenseful backdrop to all of the character's actions.
Sometimes, early on, this was not ideal--it seemed as though the choices were so powerful that they'd have nowhere else to go as the play progressed. The video projections in particular were often less helpful; it seemed to me as though they should have either been used more, or used less. Some visions, such as the appearance of a ghost near the end of the second act, were accompanied by strong psychedelic projections. But others, like the infamous "is that a dagger which I see before me?" were played without any projection at all. I found it difficult to understand what the logic was behind certain choices of projection versus others. But there was no denying that even before the end of the first scene, the show's tone and mood was very powerfully set, and that all of the design elements had played a part.
Of course, had the mood prevailed in one tone for an entire show, it might have become overpowering, even stifling. And it is here that the director and the actors are to be commended for balancing out the mood. The heavy tones of the play could have been insufferably relentless, but at times became a springboard to turn even the subtlest humor into a real joy and release. In one scene, Macbeth is discussing ordering a murder. As he does so, he prepares a sandwich for himself and for the murderers, putting it in one murderer's mouth to stifle objection. The choice brought humor into a stark moment, but the care with which the choice was deployed turned an intellectual concept about greed into a human moment of hunger.
This transformation of intellectual concepts into visceral, emotional experiences was clear in each of the actors. Patrick Stewart's Macbeth was a very human incarnation, whose soliloquoys seemed to be honest conversations with the audience. No matter how many murders, or how vile his actions were, there was a human being looking for something, whether it be from the audience or from other members of the ensemble. Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth was equally invested with life; like Lady Macbeth she seemed to be able to slide from one end of Lady Macbeth's existence to the other without destroying the integrity of the character. Neither character ever milked the "great lines" of Shakespeare any more than the moment dictated.
The term 'modernization' is bandied about a lot in reference to Shakespeare, but it seems strange to talk about this production as 'modernizing' Macbeth. Although the prop elements (also from Anthony Ward) and the costume choices (supervised by Christine Rowland) were 'modern,' the feeling was not that this is what Macbeth would look like if it happened in the 21st Century. It looked to me as though this story was a universal story, and that all of these 'modern' elements had been selected for no other reason than to make the story work. The time in which the play took place was not important--what was important is that it was happening now, in the visceral sort of way that theater has of always happening now.