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.

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September 11, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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