Unfortunately, I remember Ethan Hawke in “Hamlet.” In 2000, the scruffy actor took the title role in a modern-day adaptation of the show, which had him brooding and spouting soliloquies all across Manhattan. As I walked out of the movie theater, I promised myself never to bother with Shakespeare in a “re-imagined” setting again. And while I still haven’t forgiven Mr. Hawke, Rupert Goold’s production of “Macbeth” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater has changed my mind about the repositioning of Shakespeare.
From its opening scene in a gloomy, 1920s-era hospital, this production has a dark and ominous air about it. The Weird Sisters (played by Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame and Niamh McGrady) are dressed as nurses, prodding bodies and wielding scalpels as the lines of a heart monitor are projected on the tiled white walls and the machine’s beeps blast over the sound system.
The scene could be confused for a music video — until a grate at the top of the stage, made to resemble an elevator door, opens and spews forth two men: Banquo (Martin Turner) and Macbeth (Patrick Stewart).
Dressed in fatigues and fresh from defeating the forces of Ireland and Norway, the soldiers have their famous conversation with the sisters, made all the more eerie by Howard Harrison’s lighting tricks, and that classic series of events begins once again.
What’s immediately clear is director Goold’s taste for the macabre. Upon slaying Duncan, Macbeth returns to stage with his hands coated in blood. Not convinced he’s done the job correctly, Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood) returns to the scene of the crime to touch things up and returns absolutely soaked in gore. Fleetwood, who is slight in stature but projects an outsized evil in this role, wears it well.
And while the show is undeniably Scottish, Goold’s fascination with Joseph Stalin adds a sublimely Soviet flair to the production. The show, which won 2007 Evening Standard Theater Awards for both the director and star, combines a minimalist set with a series of bold, gory video projections that, while untraditional, fit the story perfectly. Even at dinner, crashed by the blood-soaked ghost of Banquo, the guests take part in a Cossack dance that adds tremendous character to the mix.
Goold’s grim vision is at its finest when the Weird Sisters return to stage in Act IV. Creeping about a morgue, the terrifying trio is practically rapping their famous lines, “Double, double, toil and trouble,” while they writhe on top of corpses and make black magic look like a dance party.
Meanwhile, Macduff (Michael Feast) — clad in a trench coat and fedora fit for a spy — has joined Malcolm (Scott Handy) and a group of soldiers and heads back to Scotland, against a green forest projection no less, to put a stop to Macbeth’s tyranny.
The last moments of the play, which are delightfully dark and violent, had the audience holding its breath.
For a group of people who are, no doubt, very familiar with the work, this is no small feat. Thanks to powerful performances from Stewart and Fleetwood, and a well-executed plan to give Scotland the fetid flavor of Communist Russia, this grisly enactment is a bloody success, no bones about it.
The Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of “Macbeth” is running through March 22 at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $30-$90. For information, call (718) 646-3100 or visit www.bam.org.