This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Last year it was Ian McKellen's King Lear. Next year it will be Jude Law's Hamlet. But this year, it's Patrick Stewart's Macbeth.
The celebrity Shakespeare event of 2008 opened last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As with last year's King Lear, this Macbeth is beyond sold out with tickets selling on-line for double and triple face value. The difference though is this Macbeth isn't moving on to Minnesota or Los Angeles after its New York run.
Rather than complain about why this Macbeth isn't moving to Los Angeles, the real complaint L.A. theater buffs should file is: why isn't Los Angeles moving towards this Macbeth?
The triumph of this Macbeth is not Patrick Stewart. He's compelling as the insane Scottish King, but not revelatory. What is revelatory in this production (which originated in the English coastal parish of Chichester) is the direction of Rupert Goold.
His vision of Macbeth is not a medieval Scottish ghost story but instead the rise of an early 20th century fascist dictator. Goold traces Macbeth's action—from the witches foretelling his fate to his bloody ascent to the throne—as if it were a biography of Stalin or Ceausescu.
This alone is not novel—fascist settings in Shakespeare have been common for decades: McKellen played Richard III as a Hitler figure and The Merchant of Venice has frequently been set during Mussolini's era.
What makes Goold's vision unique is one, his total commitment to this concept—whether its staging Banquo's death as a hit job on a crowded moving train or Malcolm spending his exile in dingy cabaret bars—and two, a firm grasp of both the technical and theatrical ways of depicting it. Goold relies heavily on video projections as well as sound effects, which gives the production a blockbuster feel; but in reality it's a simple one-set staging. The effects that are truly special are the old fashioned theatrical ones— like the famous Act III scene where Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth at dinner banquet: Goold stages it twice. Just before intermission, we see the scene from Macbeth's eyes (with Banquo standing on the table covered in blood) and just after intermission, we see it from everyone else's perspective: Macbeth screaming and reacting to thin air.
Not everything Goold touches is magic: the first half has a few stiff scenes and in Act IV, having the witches (dressed as nurses throughout the play) turn “Double double toil and trouble” into a rap number is distracting; but on the whole this Macbeth is a great example of what a daring young director can do with a classic play.
And this is what Los Angeles theater fans should be concerned about. Where are the young, daring theater directors of Los Angeles? Where is our Rupert Goold?
Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent essay last year about how Los Angeles is great for discovering local actors, but not so great when it comes to discovering or supporting the careers of young, local directors. Seeing this Macbeth was a stark reminder of that essay and of this problem. Goold has done commercial theater in London; but mostly he's worked in regional theaters, the Pasadena Playhouses and South Coast Reps of England. Now, there are examples of young directing talent in L.A.'s small theaters, but they are undeveloped and underfunded. Directors need experience to grow, but our bigger stages in town don't always look to Theater Row or North Hollywood when they're crewing up their shows.
If L.A. is ever to forge its own theatrical identity, it's not going to be with directors from New York or London, it's going to be with directors trained and seasoned here. Until our theaters really commit to grooming young, local directors, Angelenos will always be waiting for the Rupert Goold's of the world to bring their Macbeths to us.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: © Richard Termine