Patrick Stewart in Macbeth
(© Manuel Harlan)
Patrick Stewart in Macbeth
(© Manuel Harlan)
Rupert Goold's production of Macbeth has arrived at BAM waving a reputation as the best interpretation of William Shakespeare's bloody Scottish play that London critics have been served in donkey's years. And, yes, it's something to see, all right. Snag tickets for it in any way possible.

Watching Goold's macabre take on the Bard's familiar tale of vaulting ambition and corrosive guilt is like groping through a carnival funhouse and whispering to a happily thrilled-and-chilled companion, "Ooh, look at that, and look at that over there and, hey, look at this here!" He's avidly processed abundant ideas on shaking up the war-riddled warhorse that are almost unfailingly eye-popping and ear-catching.

Indeed, to create this Macbeth -- set in a surreal 1950's Socialist Russian state -- music and sound designer Adam Cork, video and projection designer Lorna Heavey, lighting designer Howard Harrison, and set designer Anthony Ward must have worked overtime to pull off their myriad scarifying effects. There are several heart-stopping explosions, blood coursing from a faucet, walls splattered with pictures of forests of trees and crowds of uniformed soldiers -- not to mention an authentic-seeming, original Russian folk song that Cork uncorks.

The cumulative design effort -- which sometimes gives the impression of being a video installation in a Whitney Museum Biennial show -- is so overwhelming that a theatergoer could understandably be slow to notice how the text, like so many of the doomed characters in it, eventually is somewhat sliced-and-diced. And the choppy quality extends not only to the breathlessly compelling tale by Shakespeare, but occasionally to the performances -- not the least of which is Patrick Stewart's as the initially-reluctant homicidal title figure.

Stewart looks fit from the moment he arrives when an upstage elevator descends, and he prowls the stage or sometimes prances about it from then on, easily putting to rest any complaints about his being too old (at age 67) for the role. Moreover, he lends Macbeth's unsteadily calculated actions a now-or-never quality that makes good sense. At times, he speaks the poetry with moving authority. His delivery of the "Is that a dagger" soliloquy while grabbing at the unseen object is eloquence at its most menacing. However, his readings sometimes come across as too deliberate -- nowhere more so than in his halting "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech. But more than anything, his portrait of a man being eaten alive by relentless guilt often feels shunted aside as he becomes just another of Goold's sideshow attractions.

Where Stewart definitely doesn't become garish wallpaper is in his scorching scenes with Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth. If the Shakespeare tragedy isn't the first ever to insist it's the woman behind the man who's the true driving force, it's undoubtedly the most grandly effective. Fleetwood quickly establishes her powers as a spouse ready to push her man as high as she can -- and, incidentally, a royal who spends more time in the kitchen than most monarchs do. (Lady Macbeth talks about having breast-fed babies, but where is even one Macbeth heir? Shakespeare never tidied up that loose end.)

The largish, busy ensemble also includes Scott Handy as a determined Malcolm; Michael Feast as a Macduff, whose hearing of his wife and children's death is the emotional high point here; and Michael Turner as a forthright Banquo, whose sudden appearance at a Macbeth celebration takes the café for ability to startle. Then there's Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame and Niamh McGrady as the three "double, double, toil and trouble" witches. That trio may be Goold's best notion among a cauldron of hot ones. They're first seen as nurses in an Army field hospital, but then -- occasionally writhing out predictions as if they've got the bends -- they continue appearing everywhere Macbeth goes, sometimes hiding flashing knives behind their backs. If this whirligig Macbeth isn't exactly Macbeth's, it's most certainly theirs.