For two weeks starting May 15, PBS has released several concerts, Broadway musicals, and plays for the general public via streaming. “Following a London West End run in December 2007, a sold-out limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March 2008, and a subsequent eight-week run on Broadway, director Rupert Goold’s gripping stage production of Shakepeare’s ‘Macbeth’ was filmed for television at the end of 2009.”
Sir Patrick Stewart was a Tony nominee for his performance in the titular role with fellow nominee Kate Fleetwood as his ambitious and scheming wife. On March 31, 2011, this production received a George Foster Peabody Award.
“Watch the production for the wonderful performances. Stewart’s Macbeth will not disappoint.“
The dress, designed by Mike O’Neill, are modern and contemporary props and weaponry are used. The costumes are Eastern European, and there were intentional parallels to Ceausescu and his despotic regime in Romania. However, that really was never made clear. The Romanian dictator’s rise to power and his corruption made Macbeth’s villainy seem small. He did have a wife who was part of the regime, but there is no hint that Ceausescu killed his predecessor. He was not killed in battle but by a governmental firing squad after having stood trial. Therefore, it left me wondering why that decision was made. I did not think it added to the viewing experience, but then, I supposed I am a purist when it comes to the historical plays of the Bard.
It is also important to recall the historical context of “Macbeth.” He was a real king of Scotland who won the crown after killing his rival, Duncan, in battle – not murdering him in his sleep. Macbeth was, at worst, a benign ruler who ruled for 17 years, and possibly popular since his reign was known to be peaceful and prosperous. Macbeth was 35 years old when he was crowned king in 1040 AD.
When Macbeth and his queen visited Rome, they came home to turmoil. Under Macbeth’s rule, Scotland had a lax immigration law and Normans from England were fleeing to the country. Malcolm, the son of Duncan, talked England into supporting an army for him to enter Scotland, and his forces and Macbeth’s did meet at Dunsinane. Macbeth’s army lost and Malcolm took over southern Scotland. In 1057, Macbeth was killed in battle and his body was buried along with other Scottish kings. Malcolm eventually became King of Scotland. So why the change of history? James I was related by royal lineage to Duncan and Malcolm. He also liked witchcraft, and this new king had made a contract with Shakespeare to do 20 shows a year. So it is easy to see why Shakespeare tweaked the plot for his new benefactor.
Stewart is one of those actors who could enthrall you just reading a phone book. In this version, he brings us a very angry Macbeth and had a different point of view than several Macbeth’s I have seen. In those productions, the Thane had some misgivings about his deed and as does Lady Macbeth. Stewart created a character who sees the witches’ fortune-telling as an excuse for his murderous rise to power. His paranoia about Banquo and others comes from the devils in his own soul, not from the three evil sisters, portrayed as gruesome nurses. I was not quite sure why they decided to make this symbol of healing and kindness evil.
Stewart is so powerful, we still watch in awe as his Macbeth feeds on the suffering of others. Kate Fleetwood plays Lady Macbeth almost as if she was a trophy wife. Her queen also never questions the original murders. It is only later that her conscious drives her mad and Fleetwood captures this madness wonderfully.
Michael Feast is excellent as Macduff, the thorn in Macbeth’s side. His reaction of terror to the death of his family was an excellent counterpoint to Macbeth’s dismissal of his own wife’s death. Also giving a most memorable performance was Martin Turner as Banquo. I particularly liked his reaction to the three sisters’ prophesies, again opposite to Macbeth’s.
Christopher Patrick Nolan played the only humorous role, The Porter, and again his training in classical theater was apparent.
The rest of the main cast included Suzanne Burden as Lady Macduff, Ben Carpenter as Donalbain; Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter, and Niamh McGrady as the three Witches; Scott Handy as Malcolm; Mark Rawlings as Lennox; Paul Shelley as Duncan; and Tim Treloar as Ross. All are veterans of the British stage.
Besides changing the setting to modern Eastern Europe from medieval Scotland (there are so many references to the British Isles in the dialogue, it was a bit strange), I also question the ages of the actors. Stewart could probably not do a bad job if he tried. The whole cast was a director’s dream, but Stewart was over 60 at the time and Lady Macbeth was a woman her late 30s. Macbeth is usually played as a man in his late 30s to early 40s and his wife from her late 20s to late 30s. Duncan is portrayed as old enough to make Lady Macbeth state that he reminded her of her father. Macduff is usually about 30 and his wife even younger. Both actors seemed too old to have such young children, and the same is true of Banquo. The actor playing Fleance (Bertie Gilbert), Banquo’s son, (the witches’ prediction to be Macbeth’s successor) was only 13. Fleance is usually played several years older, because Malcolm, Duncan’s son, steps aside to allow Fleance to be king. It seems hard to imagine an heir to throne allowing a 13-year-old, not really in line, to take over a country that has been hemorrhaging from Macbeth’s rule.
Watch the production for the wonderful performances. Stewart’s Macbeth will not disappoint.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty-nine minutes
Advisory: This production is not recommended for young children as there is some graphic violence portrayed.
There are other wonderful shows free for viewing through the generosity of PBS. If you are longing for quality performing arts, go to PBS website to see what wonderful concerts, plays, and musicals are available in the next few weeks. If you want to catch “Macbeth,” this is the last week. PBS exists with your donations. In support of their wonderful work at this time, please donate if you can.