‘Prepare to engage warp drive,’  his eyes, betraying no emotion, seem to scan into the far reaches of the galaxy. 

Warp drive engaged, Captain, responds Lieutenant Uhuru.

‘Make it so!’

The laconic manner and imperious hand gesture marked Captain Jean-Luc Picard out as the greatest commander of the USS Star Ship Enterprise ever.  This man had no doubts.  He was created to lead humanity’s quest for new civilisations far from their own planet, ‘to boldly go where none had been before’.   Nothing could ruffle his demeanour; attacks by alien vessels, magnetic storms that eliminated his ships protective shield, even having his brain invaded by the terrifying Borg.  As long as Picard was in charge, we were safe.   

For an actor of the stature of Patrick Stewart, the commander of a star ship is not the most demanding role; a bit like James Bond; look cool and say little.  But Stewart is a great actor; he has gravitas.  He dominates the stage.  But he doesn’t do strong and silent.  This year he has teamed up with one of the most innovative new directors in British theatre to create a production of Macbeth that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and stay up for next 2 hours. 

Shakespeare’s plays are so rarely set according to his original stage directions,  but nothing was to prepare us for the shock of this presentation.

With a barrage of explosions,  we are transported to a grim white tiled basement kitchen, with ovens, fridge, a crackling television and a service lift with great crashing metal doors.  In the early scenes, this serves as a field hospital.  Soldiers are brought in injured or dying and are treated by the three nurses, identically clad in uniforms of black and white stripes, dark stockings and shoes and and broad white headcloths.  But these are no ordinary nurses. They are deathly pale. There are black shadows under their eyes.  They move mechanically with no emotion in their faces, no sense of  compassion in their ministrations.  These weird nursing sisters deal in death.  One soldier, shaking with loss of blood and breathless tells of Macbeth’s bravery and is despatched with an injection in the neck.  Macbeth arrives in army fatigues, is told that he will be Thane of Cawdor and King thereafter.  Slowly their poison takes control of his mind.

Macbeth is a dark tale of ambition and creeping corruption.  Though notionally set in Scotland, it is inspired by Stalin and the great terror.  ‘A dead man is no problem’; Stalin once said, ‘no man, no problem’.  At first it is his sexy and manipulative wife, played brilliantly by Kate Fleetwood, who persuades Macbeth to do the deed that will expedite the sisters’ predictions.  But before the blood has had time to congeal, the knowledge of their crime destabilises the new King and Queen.  Macbeth’s is a rule of terror; he sees threat to his power everywhere and is corrupted by his fear to became a ruthless shell of a man.  The changing balance of their relationship is thrillingly captured.  Lady Macbeth loses her grip on reality and kills herself,  but by then Macbeth is so dehumanised, he barely notices.  Believing the sisters predictions of invincibility – he will not be vanquished until the very trees move against him and can never be killed by any man born of woman, he defends his tyranny with a reckless and cynical intent, until Macduff tells him how he was ‘untimely ripped from his mother’s womb’ and he embraces death with a laugh.

The art of the actor is to show us the way we are.  Through Stewart’s interpretation, we see the gradual destruction of Macbeth’s humanity.  When first he meets the sisters, he is the affable comrade in arms soldier, returning tired but happy from a successful campaign.  Under assault from his less ambiguous wife,  we see his integrity wilt under darker forces of ambition until it is totally consumed.  Such a husk of a man cannot inspire loyalty, he employs terror to maintain his power.  So at the dinner party to celebrate his coronation, he snatches the bottle away from the terrified Ross and when Lennox dares to light up in his presence he takes the cigarette out of his mouth and crumples it onto his head, chucking while his adversary quakes.  Those who might threaten his precarious hold on power are dealt with ruthlessly, Malcolm is killed, then Banquo is attacked in a jolting train carriage, Ross is tortured,  and when MacDuff flees to England, his wife and children are slaughtered.  Like Mugabe, Amin, Stalin and Hitler, Macbeth has assumed the mantle of a tyrant, who understands the importance of virtue and morality but has been seduced by the destructive lure of power.  His fear can be subdued by further killing, but it soon rises up again.   And when there is longer any flicker of humanity,  one is left with terror.   Ask any child.  A parent’s anger is not nearly as frightening as a complete absence of emotion.   Zombies, murderers and psychopaths are really scary people.  The sisters look like the undead; they have claimed Macbeth as one of their own.

The production maintains the tension of a familiar story by surprise.  The appearance of the Banquo’s ghost at the banquet is staged twice, once in the eyes of Macbeth in all its blood-gouted horror and once in the eyes of the guests, where a crazed Macbeth appears to be screaming at nothing.   The horror of the murder of Macduff’s family is evoked by the ominous sound of a thug unpeeling gaffer tape.  And in the sleepwalking scene,  the kitchen tap suddenly runs with blood even as Lady Macbeth tries to clean her hands with bleach.

Be afraid, be very afraid, Jean-Luc may have defended his emotion, but we always sensed it was there; he would have made a great dad!  But now Jean-Luc has turned into one of the Borg.  Expect no mercy. 

Macbeth is playing at the Geilgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, until mid December

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