A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 195 – Macbeth (1978 – RSC)

Macbeth (1978 – RSC) – September 11th, 2010

We do own a good bit of Shakespeare. We like it, after all. I mentioned in some previous reviews that I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare and studied more than a few of his plays. I enjoy it quite a bit. So I’m glad we own as much as we do. Of course we own a lot of the really well known adaptations, the big cinematic versions like Branagh’s Henry V and the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. We have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and we have The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). Yes. We like Shakespeare. But this production of Macbeth is something very interesting and different from the other productions I’ve seen. It’s even different from the vast majority of what I’ve seen live on stage.

All of the live stage productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen have been full productions with elaborate sets and costumes and props and lots of fancy lighting and all. And being a theater tech geek I appreciate those productions even when they’re horrible (and oh, I have seen Shakespeare done poorly indeed), because I’m endlessly fascinated by the choices made when bringing the plays to the stage in the modern day. And then there’s this play. Which definitely is the result of some interesting choices.

It’s a black box production. The movie begins with an overhead shot of the stage, showing us that it is circular, and we meet the cast, who are all seated around the edge facing inward towards each other. There is no set. There is no backdrop. The seats aren’t even visible once they’re all sitting down. There are lights and the empty blackness of the room and our cast. And that is all. It is a very spare production. Even the costumes are minimal. When Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth becomes Queen, the only changes to her plain black dress and headscarf are a fine gold chain at her neck and a simple crown over the headscarf. That’s it. Props are minimal too, with the Witches getting the most to play with. There are a couple of swords, a dagger (of course), a goblet, a royal cloak, a cauldron and some dolls on sticks for the Witches to play with. It’s so very simple. So very plain. You have nothing to look at but the actors and their performances.

I find the choice to do Macbeth in such a minimalistic way very interesting, since I’d never really considered such a rich tragedy to be something one would perform with so little. I’ve seen this sort of production before. I’ve been in one myself. But they were small casts, four or five people, max, and small scale overall. It’s a huge contrast to the immense battlefields and villas and tracking shots of Branagh’s Shakespeare visions. And it works. When Ian McKellen comes on screen as Macbeth, he commands the stage. And he should be the focus. Not only because of the character, but because of the strength of his acting. But the lack of the distractions of scenery and lighting effects and elaborate costume and extras in the background force the audience to really pay attention to McKellen. To Macbeth. It’s the same for Dench as Lady Macbeth. And put them on stage together and it’s truly impressive to watch them. They carry the play and do an excellent job of it. Now, I’ve seen a live production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and seen them do the simple set and simple costume thing and I was impressed then too (it was a production of Howard’s End performed in Stratford), but it wasn’t as bare as this is.

Another choice I found interesting was to present the play almost in its entirety. Lines here and there were truncated or glossed over. A couple of scenes had a third character removed and his lines given to one of the other two. But in those cases, the things missing were lines that seemed to be belaboring the point already made, or the extra character wasn’t adding a third opinion, just a third voice. Hecate was cut entirely, but she only shows up a couple of times in the scenes with the Witches. And otherwise the play is intact. I followed along with a script and found it amazingly accurate. In full cinematic productions this is a rare thing. Doing so would result in exorbitantly long movies. Yes, this one was over two hours, but I don’t think it suffered for it.

I’ve mentioned Judi Dench and Ian McKellen’s performances, because they truly are the stars of the show and they have well earned their reputations as masters of their craft. But I was also impressed by the rest of the cast and amused to see some familiar and unexpected faces. Roger Rees was impressive as Malcolm, Bob Peck was totally out of left field for me as Macduff (he was the gamekeeper in Jurassic Park), and then there was Ian McDiarmid as Ross and the Porter. Ian McDiarmid. You know, from Star Wars? A very young Ian McDiarmid too, looking oddly like Rene Aberjonois. He was utterly unlike what I expect from him and I was thrilled to see his performance.

I’m not so sure about the time period the production was using. Indeed, I’m not sure what time period it was. The costumes were a mix of odd armor, military uniforms, shapeless dresses and fishing sweaters. One of the Witches wore a bright yellow plastic barrette in her hair. Without anything else to guide me, I’m afraid the time of the play was left in limbo for me. But given how impressed I was by the performance of it, I can’t say I mind the play being slightly timeless. The tragedy and emotion and madness don’t really need a specific decade or century in which to work when performed by experts like the cast we saw tonight.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Macbeth (1978)

September 11, 2010

Macbeth (1978)

I went through a very brief phase a few years back where I made it my plan to purchase every Shakespearean adaptation I could find. Of course there are teeming hundreds of adaptations of all levels of quality, so this ambition did not last long, but I did end up buying quite a few nice adaptations while this passion was upon me. Amongst these was this BBC production of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Macbeth in 1978.

It has been about twenty two years since I last read or saw this play. As such it’s a fresh adventure for me watching it now. Oh, sure, I remember the “Is this a dagger which I see before me” speech and “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him.” I remember the witches and their prophesies. But the tale of ambition betrayal murder and madness was dim in my memory ‘ere we watched this tonight.

It is the madness that fascinates me most tonight. This rendition of the play is something I have not seen before. Amanda says it is a “black box.” There is no scenery, no sets, hardly any props. Much is conveyed by clever lighting which sets the scene, but behind the performers is just pure velvet blackness. There are only the actors, the performances and the words. The words of course are legendary. I’ve seen a fair share of Shakespeare by now, and I know that of the tragedies people rank Hamlet king, but I actually like this play better. It’s a more straight forward play with simpler set of motivations. Hamlet is a grand melodrama, but Macbeth is a tale of a descent into madness that is far more direct. It doesn’t feel all padded out with ancillary characters, players, plots, poisons and such. It’s just madness, murder and vengeance.

So to the actors and the performances. The cast is full of familiar faces. We chuckled somewhat to see Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor from the Star Wars films, playing the comedic role of the porter and the dramatic role of Ross. Amanda was astonished to see Roger Rees, who is in a couple other movies in our project. The greatest weight though is given to the two leads; Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. Given that the nature of the project there are no distractions to take your attention away from their powerful portrayals and they do not disappoint.

Ian McKellen is by turns powerful, vulnerable, terrified, defiant and ruthless. His Macbeth is a very fragile character, really, who is driven mad by the deeds he must do to attain and keep the position of king which he so craves. At every step you can see that he knows his actions to be wrong but he sees no alternative. It’s in the eyes here. McKellen imbues him with such terror in his every waking nightmare that you can feel sympathy for the poor mad tyrant, which is of course the whole point of the play.

Partnered with this you have Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth providing the drive and shoring up his courage when he wavers. Her sleepwalking scene concludes with an inhuman cry of such pure unimaginable pain that it literally sent shivers down my spine. I had thought that was a figure of speech. It’s a mesmerising performance by an absolute master at her trade.

This whole production is captivating and otherworldly, which works for the supernatural nature of the play. I’m so glad I got to see it, and it makes me want to get some other versions of the play to compare it to. I think tomorrow we’ll do Ian McKellen’s Richard III. I’ve seen that one before and it’s another great treat.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment