William Shakespeare
Chichester Festival production
Gielgud Theatre

Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

Rupert Goold's production in the round in Chichester had generally received great reviews and with everybody's favourite starship captain, Patrick Stewart, in the title role, expectations were high when it moved to the Gielgud Theatre. They have certainly been fulfilled in a thrilling evening's theatre that magically transforms the Scottish play into the Russian play.

Shakespeare set the story of an ordinary man who was driven by his wife and some farseeing witches to become king in an icy Scotland long ago. Goold, with the assistance of designer Anthony Ward, places the participants in a white-tiled hospital mortuary in Stalinist Russia. The time and place are signified by both the militaristic costumes and black and white projections of those ubiquitous military parades.

Unlikely as it may seem, this works perfectly, giving the play fresh nuances while not getting in the way of the basic story. The three-hour production is then given real impetus by swift scene changes hidden behind blackouts and loud industrial noise.

While all of the publicity focused on Patrick Stewart, like his character by the end of the evening he is in real danger of being usurped by onstage colleagues.

In particular, the brilliant Kate Fleetwood turns Lady Macbeth into a bright eyed, power dressing beauty who looks as if she has stepped straight out of an episode of Dynasty. With blood red lips, she is marvellous in vulpine mode egging on her timid husband towards his destiny as king; terrifying when having dug around in Duncan's entrails she emerges horribly bloodied; and finally makes a complete transformation to become a pale shadow of her former self - a maddened sleepwalker with her previously glossy hair in greasy rat tails.

Similarly, Michael Feast brings real feeling into the part of Macduff, first when deeply shocked at the murder of King Duncan (played by Paul Shelley) and, later on, sending shivers down the spine as he mourns the loss of his wife and "pretty ones".

Further down the cast list, Hywel John and Suzanne Burden are both impressive, the former opening the play as a bloody sergeant whose death augers a nightmare period for his country and the latter playing the wronged Lady Macduff.

Stewart, head completely shaved, deliberately underplays the part of the Thane from his initial meeting with the weird sisters, on this occasion portrayed as automaton nurses who know how to wield a surgeon's blade. It is only when, in a clever repetition, he has twice at the same banquet faced Banquo's ghost that the star really moves into top gear.

From that point on, Stewart impresses first as a man both terrified and bemused and then later on when like Achilles, the newly crowned king believes himself to be immortal before Birnam Wood finally marches on Dunsinane and then Macduff announces that he was "from my mother's womb untimely ripped" and our man realises that he is doomed.

This highly-recommended Macbeth is a great example of the way in which Shakespeare can be updated and in the process given fresh life and meaning. It is graced by fine performances, a lively staging and many subtle touches that give the characters a realistic sense of human weakness.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Chichester

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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