There are so many brilliant ideas in Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth – which has transferred triumphantly to the Gielgud for a ten-week season from the small Minerva in Chichester – that you wonder if the whole thing can hang together. It does, just about, because the jolting of the nightmare Eastern European tyranny of Macbeth up against the insistent contrast between Scotland and England in the second half of the play survives all the wrenches forced upon it by the concept. And the whole evening is so exciting.

The world of the play is an abattoir, kitchen, hospital and prison all in one, with the witches supervising episodes of murderous hospitality in nurses’ uniforms. The “temple-haunting martlet” that Duncan (Paul Shelley) so enjoys is under the chopper and on the menu. The place is fitted out in Anthony Ward’s design with white tiles and an ominous, cranking lift that delivers victims to their fate in a sinister hell hole.

The Indian summer of Patrick Stewart’s stage career continues with his utterly convincing poet soldier whose uncanny facial resemblance to Lenin makes his great-coated bluster and cold-blooded perseverance all the more terrifying. His level of performance is matched by Kate Fleetwood’s square-jawed, slinky Lady Macbeth, a trophy wife who finds her social climbing ambitions running out of control.

Duncan’s murder is a blood-boltered off-stage ritual, the murder of Banquo (Martin Turner) an espionage-style scuffle on a packed commuter train (“night’s black agents to their preys do rouse” indeed) and the passage of time, as the reign of terror bites into the national psyche, conveyed brilliantly by the projected film of fascist rallies and the ominous, encroaching thrum of Adam Cork’s music and sound score.

Lady Macduff (Suzanne Burden) and her children are promoted to an earlier point in the narrative so their destruction is all the more poignant. Scott Handy’s Malcolm and Michael Feast’s Macduff – both roles fleshed out beyond their usual shadowiness – are listening to an Ivor Novello song recital (“My dearest dear”) before the spell winds up to shatter the last shred of civilisation.

When Stewart delivers the “Tomorrow” dirge to his wife’s corpse stretched out on a trolley, it really is like watching the end of an era in, say, Romania or former Yugoslavia. As a political thriller, this Macbeth combines all the elements of the corrupt tyranny envisaged by George Orwell and expressed again in the great recent movie The Lives of Others. Plus you get Shakespeare’s ineffable poetry!

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from May 2007 and this production’s original run in Chichester.

There have been many stagings of Macbeth? that have drawn parallels between 20th-century tyrannies and Macbeth’s very own reign of terror, but there have been very few as explicit as Rupert Goold’s reading of him as Stalin.

Longer Macbeths are also rare: this one has an almost operatic sweep as Goold takes Shakespeare’s second shortest play and stretches the evening to more than three hours. This is a drama often played without an interval, a staging that always seems appropriate to me as it allows us to get caught up with Macbeth’s giddying fall from military golden boy to “hell-hound” without contemplating too quickly the internal contradictions in Shakespeare’s play.

But by opening out, Goold allows the full horror of the Macbeth tyranny to sink in. There are occasions where it goes over the top: the arrival of Banquo’s ghost is heralded by The Shining-like streaks of blood emerging from a lift and the killing of Macduff’s family is rather too much Grand Guignol.

Unusually, the interval comes within the banquet scene rather than after it; even more unusually, part of it is played twice (with Banquo and without). It’s hard to understand the point of this: does Goold think that the Chichester audience won’t understand what’s going on unless it’s spelled out? There are other discrepancies: Ross seems to lead a charmed life; one minute he’s being tortured, the next he’s seen at the point of a gun and then he fetches up in England apparently at liberty. That doesn’t exactly suggest a state where “each day a new gash is added to the wound”.

Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth is ample compensation though. His superbly-spoken Scot is a portrayal of an opportunistic soldier who has seized his chance and finds tyranny sits well on his shoulders. The supernatural element is slightly underplayed, suggesting a despot who needs little prompting. Kate Fleetwood’s icily sexy Lady Macbeth is a willing conspirator without being the motivational force that some productions suggest.

The murder of Banquo (Martin Turner) is particularly impressive. He’s cut down fleeing on a bus, rather than taken after a day’s hunting – it’s a powerful assassination and one that makes dramatic sense. There’s a very strong Macduff from Michael Feast and a smooth-talking Malcolm from Scott Handy (although I found the resemblance to David Cameron rather disconcerting).

From the strident electronic music to the harsh lighting; from the video backdrop to the underground setting, part morgue, part torture chamber, punctuated by the ghostly clanging of the lift, this is a determinedly modern Macbeth, one that reminds us, once again, of the power of this play.

- Maxwell Cooter