PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Macbeth — Indeed, Is He Dead?

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Macbeth — Indeed, Is He Dead? The man who came to dinner in the Chichester Festival Theatre's aggressively reconceptualized Macbeth — which made a surprise, 11th-hour landing at the Lyceum April 8 — is the fresh-killed Banquo, a bloody spectacle only the guilty can see.
Patrick Stewart, Rupert Goold and Kate Fleetwood, Byron Jennings, Rachel Ticotin and Michael Feast, Mark Rawlings, Gabrielle Piacentile and Bill Nash.
Patrick Stewart, Rupert Goold and Kate Fleetwood, Byron Jennings, Rachel Ticotin and Michael Feast, Mark Rawlings, Gabrielle Piacentile and Bill Nash. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

He arrives by freight elevator at the back of the stage, still a whopping mass of wounds, steps from Lady Macbeth's chair onto the dining table and crosses it to point an accusatory, bloody finger at the host who committed this murder most foul.

Patrick Stewart in the title role, guilty as charged, recoils in self-incriminating horror on seeing Banquo at the banquet, and the stage is plunged into blackness.

After a head-clearing intermission, the scene is taken from the top again — this time from the perspective of the dinner guests who are watching their host become unhinged by a conscience-gnawing apparition. Macbeth attempts a recovery, raises his glass to "the general joy of the table" and manages an even keel — till the ghost of Banquo comes back for seconds. Then, his partner in life and crime must intervene.

"You have displaced the mirth," Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood) declares severely to him, dispersing their guests before his hallucinations extend beyond even her damage control. Soon, the consequences of killing your way to the crown weigh heavily on her too, and she wanders around, rubbing imaginary blood off her hands.

There is a calculated method in this madness, director Rupert Goold later explained: "I was just sitting there in the rehearsal hall, looking at the script, thinking 'There are two ways of doing the Banquo appearance: One is that you see him; one is that you don't.' I once played Banquo, so I know. I never could decide which one to go with, so I finally said, 'Oh, what the hell, let's just do them both.'" Newly turned 36 and looking even younger, Goold still qualifies for Boy Wonder status. Certainly, he exhibits a young man's daring at playing fast and loose with the classics. One of Shakespeare's shorter works, Macbeth in this particular resurrection tips the scales at three hours due to a full load of tricks and innovations from Goold.

His favorite example of risk-taking that paid dividends? "I think we did pretty well with the sound design and the lighting design." (Composer Adam Cork concocted a brooding, wasp-like buzz, punctuating that periodically with loud clangs and assorted sounds that go bump in the night; the lighting from Howard Harrison is uncharacteristically hot, often blindingly bright. ) "Normally, Macbeth is done in the dark where you can't see anything, but we decided to go in the opposite direction."

Goold starts unloading his bag of tricks right at the outset by reversing the play's first two scenes. Instead of three witches cackling and chanting over a cauldron in the woods, he commences with King Duncan on the battle front. No one is credited with the set — a bland, blocky, unprepossessing room where Strindberg's Miss Julie may have hung out. Mostly, it passes for a cellar kitchen in Macbeth's castle, but flashes of light and video projections by Lorna Heavey turn it into a field of war.

The witches, played by Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame and Niamh McGrady, swirl eerily about the stage — menacing figures much like The Crucible's demonically possessed. They are, by turns, battlefield nurses or household servants, depending on how they fold their headdresses. "Necessity is the mother of invention," laughed Goold.

Except for the conspicuously good work on stage, Goold is at a loss in explaining the fortune that has followed this production. "The gods are just smiling on us," he said.

"Tradition has it that Macbeth is supposed to be such an unlucky play, but we've succeeded a lot with it." The production world-premiered at the Chichester Festival last May 25, moved to London's Gielgud on Sept. 21, set up shop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February and now has settled on Broadway for a limited run through May 24, critical hosannas following the show every major step of the way.

That last loop-de-loop almost didn't happen because all the Broadway houses were taken or spoken for, but the Lyceum landlords made room by evicting that quirky little Mark Twain/David Ives comedy, Is He Dead?, slightly ahead of schedule.

It's ironic, and fitting, that Byron Jennings (who won the Joe A. Callaway Award for his villainy in Is He Dead?) is the first actor to shout theatrical life back into the Lyceum as doomed King Duncan, uttering the prophetic line, "What bloody man is that?"

This is Jennings' third consecutive performance at the Lyceum — he was in Inherit the Wind before Is He Dead? — but he already knows his chain is going to be broken by [title of show], which takes up residency there July 17. "They already cast that," he relayed. "I plan to spend the summer with my sons, and I'm looking forward to it."

Jennings and Rachel Ticotin, who plays the equally ill-fated Lady Macduff, are the two American replacements who stepped into roles that were vacated after the BAM engagement. "This has been a wonderful group of actors — so supportive," she trilled. "We had no problems fitting in at all because of their generosity of spirit."

Nine-year-old Gabrielle Piacentile, in her Broadway debut as Ticotin's youngest, was last seen as Tootie in the Meet Me in St. Louis revival at the Irish Rep and had to admit Meet Me at Elsinore was quite a different, darker experience, but she seemed to be enjoying the job all the same — "especially backstage." What happens backstage? "I don't know if I should say," she replied with a broad, mischievous grin.

The stage-seasoned Michael Feast, whose Macduff is the one character on the premises "not born of woman" (a fatal plot point), is also marking his Broadway bow — as is the majority of the 18-member British cast. "I suppose you have to say there's something very special about working on Broadway," he conceded, "for actors, certainly, of my generation. So many of the people I've worked with as a young man who have come here — people like Ian Richardson — loved Broadway more than they loved London. At least, I got that feeling when they would speak about it."

Although Macduff prevails at the end, he does put in a lot of grieving time on stage getting there — first discovering the body of the murdered Duncan and later learning his entire family has been wiped out. His responses are polls apart. "Sorrow was one of the things that interested me about this character," he admitted. "I see his reaction to the king's death as being a much more public and theatrical grief. That's in contrast to the quiet internal kind of grief that he feels over the loss of his family."

As Broadway openings go, this one was on the subdued side. Another recitation of The Scottish Play brought out the serious playgoers — but a full house of them, filling the mezzanine and balcony to close-to-overflowing.

The turn-out include Phyllis Newman, Indiscretions co-stars Kathleen Turner (who may, or may not, have put on hold her hopes of returning to Broadway as Lady M) and Roger Rees (a memorable Malcolm in a London Macbeth), Joe Benincasa of The Actors Fund of America, Caroline McCormick and Peter Strauss (who are married to the two American replacements in the cast), Bill Kux, Met baritone Thomas Hampson (who has sung Verdi's Macbeth on numerous occasions), playwright Lynn Nottage and dance great Jacques d'Amboise.

As befitted the Old Guard crowd, the opening night party was held at Sardi's — "just like the old days," everybody kept saying. It was contained in the main dining room on the first floor, with tables with various foods scattered about (the brisket was especially good). Seating was limited, but first-nighters seemed content to stand around with their plates eating and visiting. Press interviews were conducted in the "Honeymooners" bar just off the entrance — a tad cramped and chaotic, but do-able.

Roger Rees, Carolyn McCormick, Peter Strauss, Jacques d'Amboise, Lynn Nottage and Philip J. Smith.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

To look at him beaming blissfully below his dashing moustache, you might well deduce that this was the opening Stewart had been circling for his whole career. Pre-career, he corrected. "I have been waiting to play this role since I was 14."
 Did he feel he had to be an actor of a certain age to do justice to Macbeth? "I don't at all," he shot back without much undue thought. "Other people [read: critics] seem to think so. However, if you scour the play, you'll find no reference to anybody's age."

The "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, delivered over the lifeless body of his lady, leaves a special ache with the audience. Rarely has his magnificent voice been employed to such eloquent effect. It numbers among his favorite moments in the play. "I enjoyed all the scenes I have with Kate. As well as being an extraordinary actress, she is a dear friend and collaborator, and we have a lot of fun together. We twinkle at one another a lot. She's very free. We have a great time."

Fleetwood arrived in a relieved and giddy frame of mind, in stark contrast to how she left the audience at the theatre. "This feels fantastic! I mean, Sardi's! I'm going to have champagne, then I'm going to get totally 'kaplunk,' and we going to have to leave.

"It has been a great end of a journey — a year-long journey. It was a year last week for the company. It was only supposed to be, like, five months — but it was hugely successful, and you know we're all suckers for success. It has been wonderful." Is Lady M the enormous emotional drain one imagines for an actress? The question prompts Fleetwood to put things in proper perspective. "Well, I'm a mom," she said. "I get up and do this play every night, but in the morning I'm a mom. Rafael is two and a half, and he gets my real energy. It's only draining when the door between the play and me as a performer is invisible. I walk through a door every night to be Lady Macbeth in my mind. So far, the energy I'm using I use giving care to my little one."

She gives her director full credit for making her acting ordeal easier. Goold just happens to be her husband of eight years. "Oh, he's great. I think he's great. We met doing Romeo and Juliet. And we did Othello together. We have always done Shakespeare together. This is my tenth Shakespeare. I've done lots of other things, too, but I grew up at Stratford-on-Avon, so Shakespeare was always my god."

Martin Turner, who was Oberon in a Midsummer Night's Dream at Lincoln Center a few years ago, delights nightly in making Banquo's bummer party-entrance at the end of the first act. "I really love it," he confessed. "It was a longer walk at BAM. There's a little magic in there somewhere. It's a little more rush now. I mean, all I do is step on Lady Macbeth's chair, and I'm practically there right in front of Patrick."

The evening's Malcolm who winds up King of Scotland waving Macbeth's freshly decapitated head in the air, Scott Handy, was aware his yardstick for the role — Roger Rees — was among the first-nighters. "I saw him, and I nearly swallowed my supper. I saw him here, but I haven't had the courage to talk to him yet. I haven't had enough to drink because he was a famous Malcolm in the last truly famous Macbeth with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. And I also saw him as Hamlet at the National. When you see colleagues like that across the room, your heart goes in your mouth.

"It's strange to be on Broadway. I don't know how that happened. Somebody shuffled the deck. Maybe the writers' strike. Lots of different things worked in our favor — the fact that we have two wonderful American actors in the cast, and the fact that maybe Patrick has some currency here [via "Star Trek: The Next Generation"] that maybe a normal English actor would not. I think that and the fact that it sold out at BAM meant that American Equity felt that we could have a shot at this.

"Whatever the reasons, by hook or by crook, it's just something to see. You've got a sprinkling of dust in the air — about Sardi's, about Broadway — it's just really special."

One reason this Macbeth saw the bright lights at the end of the tunnel is producer Emanuel Azenberg. "I think it's as good a production of Macbeth as we've ever seen," said the man who put his money where his mouth is. "I saw it at Chichester and tried to bring it here, but there were union problems. Then, it opened in London and got great reviews. When they knew they couldn't come to Broadway, they made the arrangement with BAM, and then subsequently Equity gave its okay.

"I like it. It's not about money. It's not that. It's just good. The kids are good. My director is good. You have to know. Look at the choices he makes! How could you not produce something like this! You understand. There are about only 12 of us left."

Director Frank Dunlop, himself no stranger to Macbeth, raved enthusiastically about the fresh ideas percolating in this production. "I've directed it three times," he said. "The first time was with Judi Dench and John Neville. Many years ago, we went on a tour of West Africa, and we opened in an open-air cinema in Lagos. The screen was all concrete behind us, and we didn't know the local meat market was behind us. On the top of the screen, all through the performance, were vultures, and the vultures sat and watched the show, waiting for the bodies. It's true. And they were the best audience ever for the witches' scenes."