A disturbing sight; you never quite get used to it: Patrick Stewart in a passionate embrace. In this version of Macbeth originally created for the Chichester Festival and filmed for the BBC, directed by Rupert Goold, Sir Patrick gets to engage in amorous clinches with Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth. She is the director’s wife no less; a matter that she, Stewart, and Goold take pains to point out in all their interviews on the DVD extras. They seem a little uncomfortable with the idea of blatant nepotism — refreshing.
But they don’t need to be, this version is – and here I will resort to the vernacular: Cracking! Stewart is powerful, frightening and passionate. Fearful, he admits, that he would never get the opportunity to make his mark in the role he accepted the chance to develop his Chichester performance, and subsequently took the play to London and New York. He compares the low-key genesis of the production in a provincial festival in the United Kingdom that ended with the award-winning run they enjoyed in America a year later to the trajectory followed by the Macbeths. But unlike their characters he and Fleetwood thoroughly deserve the accolades.
The DVD presentation of the filmed version blends the cinematic and the theatrical extremely well, with the commentaries and interviews. The changes that the company explored to adapt and develop the performance are satisfying to the dramaturgical and linguistic enthusiastic for the insight they offer into the poetry and mise-en-scene. But this does not make it limited to the specialist. It’s altogether entertaining and compelling in the way that Goold has profitably plundered cinematic language: Downfall, Saw even, and John Le Carré spy thrillers.
The use of the location, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, is particularly powerful and provocative. A home of the Dukes of Portland, it has a decayed grandeur that resonates with the play’s themes and is both eerie and threatening. The system of underground bunkers and tunnels on site were an absolute gift to the production team, and they use them to their fullest advantage for the militaristic finalé.
The political and warlike atmosphere of the play is carried out with inspiration from Soviet-era Eastern bloc dictatorships. The cult of personality that generates around Stewart’s Macbeth as he seizes power is epitomised in the huge banners depicting his portrait. Goold describes the actor as an ‘icon’ of popular culture now, thanks to his roles in Star Trek and The X Men, and the bone structure of that bald head is both familiar and sinister. His character deteriorates from his state of vaulting ambition into a paranoid, bloodthirsty, vengeful mess.
Fleetwood’s gaunt and tortured figure is especially disturbing as her Lady Macbeth spirals towards destruction. She is edgy and frustrated, her life already fractured with jealousy, ambition and lust at the outset. As the initial driving force for Macbeth’s actions, their intimacy is disturbing and poisonous. At the instigation of both Stewart and Fleetwood, they decided to capitalise on their age difference to reinforce the interface between sexual energy, lust and murderous ambitions. The play upon words of ‘manhood’ and ‘manliness’ was, they suggest, one of the most useful concepts to explore the older man catalysed into action by his young wife.
Invention and re-invention accompany Goold’s directing style, and there are some excellent set-pieces that surround the different murders. A cramped railway carriage and a bleak locker room provide the settings for the removal of Banquo and Macduff’s family, respectively. Goold also blends the presence of the witches into various scenes throughout to encourage the sense of all-pervasive evil; and in their guise of army nurses equipped with those exquisitely sinister amputation tools and ample plastic sheeting to catch the spatter. Indeed, this version of Macbeth injects both modern horror and serial killer chic into the proceedings, to further the reach of this timeless haunting tale.