I used to say Patrick Stewart was responsible for one of the great theater experiences of my life. Now I have to say TV's Captain Picard was behind two of them.
In Stewart's solo version of A Christmas Carol, which he performed on Broadway for several winters during the 1990s, there was only one man on stage telling/enacting the classic Dickens tale. But the production didn't shout "tour de force" or feel tricky in any way. He made our experience of the story warm, enthralling, and genuinely wonderful.
The contrast between that touching and generous performance and his current role shows that for a man with such an unmistakable voice, Stewart has a large range. But before I get to the Scottish Play, a further word about the actor. American critics often describe him as best known in the US for his Star Trek character. That's true in one sense, but in another it's not. Star Trek fans are notoriously geeky, which, by definition, means intensely curious about the object of their geekdom. I'd wager the great majority of them know as much about the shows' stars as they do about the warp drive. Any self-respecting Trekker knows William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both Jewish, Majel Barrett was Gene Roddenberry's wife, and Patrick Stewart had a respected career as a Shakespearean actor in England, to which he returned after the long run of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The sexagenarian actor has expressed regret that he's now too old ever to play Hamlet. It's safe to say it doesn't matter, though, now that we have his Macbeth. In the vicious Scottish king, the actor finds a deathly torment of indecision, though it's more compressed in time than the Dane's. Once the murders have commenced, fate grabs the Macbeths by their bloody shirts, and there's nothing they can do about what they do, besides wail and gnash their teeth.
Rupert Goold's ambitious Chichester Festival Theatre production, in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 22, is one of the great Macbeths of our time, and if it's not the greatest in recent memory I'd be amazed. Stewart and the extraordinarily intense Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) lead a uniformly excellent ensemble. And speaking of uniforms, the fascist/Stalinist setting isn't the first for this play, but it works well. Macbeth is, after all, about terror and totalitarianism. This aspect of the production also comments, without having to make a point of it, on the second Bush Administration's disastrous power grab.
What's more striking, in terms of modernity, is the heavy use of rear-projection video and loud sound effects. These are well integrated, and so effective in adding to the impact that one feels Shakespeare would have approved wholeheartedly.
Everything great theater can be and do, this production is and does. It has absolutely top-notch acting, of course, but also flair and humor and bonechilling thrills. I was sure they'd found some tricky way to suddenly and drastically lower the temperature in the theater as the terrifying image of Banquo's ghost ended the first half. In one of many inventive bits of staging, the Weird Sisters aren't outdoor hags but creepy hospital nurses, and the ghastly way they give Macbeth their second set of predictions really shocks. In another, MacDuff's family is murdered in a stunning stop-motion sequence.
Yet some of the play's most iconic scenes, like Lady Macbeth's guilt-wracked sleepwalk and Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, are played beautifully straight. With the possible exception of a few specific video images, all the effects seem integral and necessary, part of a complete and consistent and totally captivating vision of the play. This Macbeth is a theatrical spectacle in the true, best sense.