by William Shakespeare,
Chichester Festival Theatre Production at Lyceum Theater in New York.
Directed by Rupert Goold; Design by Anthony Ward. Featuring Patrick Stewart (Macbeth); Martin Turner (Banquo); Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) Michael Feast (Macduff); others.
April 8-May 24, 2008
The current production of Macbeth by The Chichester Festival Theatre opens in a grim room with white tiled walls. It could be a kitchen as it holds huge pots on a stove. It could be a morgue where a corpse is laid out, mercifully covered. In scale it is huge, the size of the stage, and empty. The vastness is momentarily disorienting. Three nursing sisters in half masks, armed with long knives and moving around the corpse, speak the Weird Sisters’ lines in unison: “When shall we three meet again.” They raise small hairs on the back of your neck and startle you into a tense fear that grips you for the length of the play. An electrocardiogram printout flickers along the back walls; it measures your heartbeat. When the three greet Macbeth and prophesy, “All hail Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter,” they speak the terror of unconscious wishes revealed.
Macbeth will murder King Duncan against his own advisement and counsel: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent,” no immediate grievance or motive. He does however have “vaulting ambition.” The phrase rings with this “vaulting,” desire that surmounts a limit. Of what? Of his humanity, scorned by Lady Macbeth as weakness. This is the evil of Macbeth, gripped by a form of moral vanity. Iago is gleeful; Edmund is sexy; we know them. Macbeth leaps beyond recognition of his humanity into abstractions: he first lacks the purpose; then he reacts to LM’s challenge to his manhood; then he lacks the moral imagination to stop himself from more killing. Put lightly, he suffers from these kinds of mistiming of perception and passion. When he learns that Lennox and the others never saw the Weird Sisters, and that Macduff is “fled to England,” he knows he stands in an unfamiliar realm where thinking and acting are separate events. He wishes it were otherwise: “...And even now/ To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done.”
The elegant Patrick Steward’s portrayal, of an unqualified brilliance, pivots on this sense of action against the will, of contradiction, a clear conflict of mind that causes Macbeth to move at times like an automaton. He speaks in a hush throughout. He wonders at himself; he knows what he is doing, but at the same time is rapt to the voice within, an eloquent voice generating the play’s grand subject of equivocation on several levels at once. Macbeth is an accidental poet, and poets we like to think are not murderers. WS says otherwise. In the banquet scene celebrating his rise to power, Macbeth at one moment sees the table full, with Banquo’s ghost in the chair LM sees as empty. Within a second, he doubles over in terror, and as quickly recovers to play the convincing host. Mr. Steward’s mastery of his art produces gesture on that scale, at once intensely private and fully public, quick in successive gestures, indescribable except physically. Macbeth is attuned to the inhuman; he sees the Weird Sisters; but from the first he feels his words.
His great soliloquy, “If it were done when ‘tis done...” (I,7, 1 ff) persuades him to abandon his “intent.” He tells LM, “we will proceed no further in this business...” (I, 7, 32), but she will not let him off. She dares him in words of the recognition theme: “Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/As thou art in desire?” The question is tyrannical, ‘Who are you, then; not the great man I know?” harping on a form of identity that demands action in proof. Which is the self he knows through his deeds? Which the self he discovers through his thinking? Macbeth postpones knowing. He is on the edge of discovery in I, 7...quoted above, “If it were done,” but then with the “dagger” soliloquy he has become philosophical despite himself. “Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” (II, 2,62). After the deed, however Macbeth knows he “shall sleep no more” (II, 3, 45).
The play in these deep senses is not about murder, or even regicide; it is about thought and dreams entangling action, WS’s recurring subject. Here it is not about how “conscience doth make cowards of us all,” to enlist Hamlet’s line, but how it does not hinder action. The play delivers the cerebral process of doing/or acting, or the parallel process leading to action, not concerning itself so much with whether Macbeth should or should not act. In this process he reveals himself to himself. We assume that recognition of a faculty, naming the thing, will lead to a right assessment of any implied action. That is to say, recognition will have a moral dimension, in this case will act as a deterrent. But what if WS was looking at naming as part of doing, not of contemplating whether to do. “Is this a dagger...Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation.” (II, 1 35ff.) He draws his own dagger to compare perception and thing, image and reality. And quickly he decides: “It is the bloody business which informs/ Thus to mine eyes.” That almost concludes reflection. But it is a long moment in which he envisions the wide ranging effect of his deed. “Now o’er the one half world/ Nature seems dead.” (II, 1, 50)
Perhaps Macbeth has been difficult to see because of this angle on him, in spite of all his talk showing his consciousness at work. Say, arrested consciousness. He is a man of action trapped in a hitherto unmapped territory. He is not Hamlet the thinker–who nonetheless was responsible for seven deaths.
Put it differently: Macbeth cannot recognize himself as a murderer. He catches glimpses of a persona, but that does not stop him. “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself.” (II,2,77) There is a bias about accepting that theme since Macbeth also is an incidental and gorgeous poet, as I have suggested. Every line he speaks is exquisite, maybe the most beautiful WS ever wrote. But he is deep in blood. Patrick Steward’s arms dipping in that cauldron of blood on the kitchen stove create an inspired if horrifying theatrical gesture. Blood is the witches’ medium become the killer’s. It would not be far out to say Patrick Steward’s Macbeth is like WS’s play about blood that will not wash off, but rather will incarnadine all “great Neptune’s ocean.” All of nature reverberates with the crime by Act IV, when his life falls into “the sere, the yellow leaf.” He is beyond human response to sadness and death by the time LM dies. She was not so squeamish as her husband. She would have done the deed herself if the sleeping Duncan had not so “resembled” her father. Now there’s a patriarchal insight. It nevertheless is LM who faints as Macbeth describes the scene of the dead king to the soldiers (II, 3,112). And it is she who falls into madness
The production for all the ghoulishness of the play is not without humor. When early on Macbeth and his lady temporarily quell his agitation, they take a huge, fancy layer cake out of the kitchen fridge and march off with it smiling arm in arm to greet their guests. There are other similarly inspired moments. This production is perfect in each detail. My favorite is the elevator upstage that transports the grappling Macbeth and Macduff out of the last scene. Some of Macbeth’s hallucinations have been cut, to no loss: the “shew” of eight kings in Act IV, for instance expressing his royal aspirations, already well enough understood. If there is a problem with the production it is the one insurmountable. Macbeth becomes a thug, and there is nothing thuggish about Patrick Stewart, a beautiful man with a beautiful voice.