PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Patrick Stewart

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Patrick Stewart Few actors' careers have been reborn as often as that of Patrick Stewart.
Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.
Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. Photo by Manuel Harlan

He began as a journeyman British classics actor, working many years for Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1987, he became a television icon, playing Captain Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" for seven years. That might have been the end for many actors. But in the past couple years, Stewart has reclaimed his bonafides as a Shakespearean leading man, starring in four acclaimed productions of the Bard. He is repeating one of those performances — Macbeth directed by Rupert Goold and co-starring Kate Fleetwood, and set in Stalin's Russia — at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a month-long run. Stewart recently spoke to an assemblage of reporters about his reborn love of Shakespearean drama.

Playbill.com: Martin Amis' book on Joseph Stalin was reportedly an influence on this production. Can you talk about that?
Patrick Stewart: I went to Foyle's and bought any book on the shelf that had anything to do with Stalin. It was a pile about this big. I only read one, which was the slimmest. That was not out of idleness; we were under a time pressure. I was intrigued to find [that] Martin Amis, who is a writer I admire, had written a book about Stalin. I'd never heard of it. I found on almost every page it was directly affecting the way that Rupert and his production design team had conceptualized this play. I would come in each morning with these tales of the next horrible thing I had learned Stalin had done.

Playbill.com: You've said that you've known many of the speeches in Macbeth since you were young. Did you have to approach the text anew for this production?
PS: I had relearn them accurately. Over the decades, I had slipped in my accuracy. When I was 14, I learned a lot of Shakespeare by heart. Macbeth just happened to be one of them, but he does have some particularly colorful soliloquies, which are very appealing to a 14-year-old — this particular 14- year-old anyway. I got a lot of pleasure walking around the woods of my home and yelling these speeches out loud. That would not have done for this production. I had to grow up a little bit and reexamine them. Even though almost every line these characters say is a purple passage, a famous line — great line after great line — in every other essence the play was new to me. What I find so attractive about Shakespeare right now — I've done four in the last two years — is that if you don't come with any preconceptions, if you banish the influence of other actors' performances, other production, cliches about how things should be done, and simply look at the language and the relationships, a world begins to emerge which is personal only to those people who are involved. Particularly my relationship with Kate became very personal and distinctive and idiosyncratic. It's an organic process. Things simply grow of their own accord. These days, I feel the important thing is to leave yourself open as long as possible to things bubbling up to the surface.

Patrick Stewart
photo by Alastair Muir

Playbill.com: At the end of the day, you are left with the text. Can you explain how your research into Stalin opened up your understanding of the play?
PS: I know you didn't mean it this way, but "at the end of the day, you're left with the text" — well, that's the best bit. You can do all the research you like. You can rehearse and experiment and improvise. But ultimately, no matter how much you examine and question, we can never fully explore and take apart those five acts of dialogue. That's the most exciting part of this job. You simply have to leave yourself open for possibilities you cannot legislate for. Shakespeare is holding out this big strong hand to you, saying "C'mon. It's actually easy. It's all there." The things that come directly out of the language provide us with a complex scenario — objectives and wants and needs and relationships. It's language more complex and wonderful than anything you could write about it. Playbill.com: Is it difficult to pick up the production after taking a break from doing it?
PS: Last week, Rupert assembled all of us in a big circle of chairs. There are 18 of us in the production. He laid down the ground rules for running the entire play. It's all about clarity of language and clarity of thought and being absolutely specific whom you were talking about, even if they were not referred to directly — who was the subject of this particular line. He'd encourage us to point to the character. It was illuminated to all of us. Playbill.com: There is a significant age gap between you and your Lady Macbeth. Does this affect how you play the part?
PS: There was a period of 17 years when I might have played these roles, but I didn't, because I was living in Hollywood. I became acutely aware that time and roles were passing me by. And I observed the fashion of casting Macbeths younger and younger and I thought that the moment had gone that I could play it. And then I thought maybe it hasn't gone if there's a very much younger actress playing Lady Macbeth and we emphasized the generations of difference between them. I think it gives a terrific dynamic to this relationship. This man is successful, his career has gone spectacularly well, he is honored by the king, he's there! And the young, beautiful, imposing, potent woman he's married to says "It ain't enough. I want everything."

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