Macbeth is a TV film version of the 2007 Chichester Festival Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy directed by Rupert Goold and starring Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as Lord and Lady Macbeth.
The film was shot entirely at Welbeck Abbey and makes full use of its larger halls and dingier corridors, and a much more limited use of its exteriors. These often almost empty but gigantic rooms (and peeling paint in the war scenes) and the almost total lack of exterior scenes in the first half evoke an almost apocalyptic underground world in which sunshine and fresh air may be (but seldom is) reached via the lift some characters disappear into. The costumes, props and stock footage evoke the Soviet Block in the Cold War, specifically Romania in the 1960s, thus establishing parallels between Ceaușescu and Macbeth, while the bunkerlike setting is almost Chernobylish. This is not a happy world, or a very prosperous one, as we see when we find the King entering through busy kitchens in which the lady of the house is dashing round with the servants.
The uses of the space and of the camera are a definite highlight of the production, and Cinematographer Sam McCurdy and Editor Trevor Waite should be commended for their work. This, coupled with limited use of gore and the hospital nurse versions of The Three Witches (who appear much more than usual) really highlight the horror-aspects of the supernatural side of the play.
The adventurous approach to filming, set, lighting, blocking etc of course does not extend to the script. “Of course” not because this is as it should be but because it is what is expected with regards to Shakespeare: if he is indeed a genius, who can dare advance that they’ll improve his work?
This temerity towards the text, though not unusual, does somewhat lay at odds with the rest of contemporary productions such as this. Though the technology, costumes and stock footage clearly place this in the Soviet Union, the dialogue simultaneously puts us in Scotland and though the change of setting is presumably there to update the script and make it more universal, placing it at a different point of the past in a specific country is more of a change than an update or message, and an inconsistent one at that.
The problems go slightly deeper. Lines purely there to describe what was beyond an Elizabethan theatre’s capacity to stage are kept, along with the effects, actions and performances that make them moot. “Comedic” scenes that haven’t brought the house down in over three centuries are here regardless of whether they serve any other purpose. In some dialogue heavy scenes, one feels the much more static use of camera angles and editing: clearly the text sometimes got in the way of the production and vice-versa. This deference for the text is somewhat ironic when it comes to Macbeth as Shakespeare’s version doesn’t exist, the one we have today being Middleton’s abridged rewrite for a later production.
That is not to say that one gets bored during the simple dialogue scenes. Patrick Stewart is an ever-reliable force (He was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries for this performance) and the rest of the cast also bring their own lively interpretation to proceedings, though the side of Macbeth does feel a lot more interesting than Macduff’s. However, that’s the play as written (it’s isn’t called Macduff!) rather than the fault of any of the actors.
If the space given to problems seems to outweigh that given to qualities, let that reflect on the review rather than the show. Macbeth and Patrick Stewart both have their well-established reputations, and going into the qualities of either would just be preaching to the choir. This is a very well put together adaptation with a lot of talent visible both in front and behind the camera.
For those who cannot or will not go to the theatre, this production could well be the perfect middle-ground and introduction to the play. Those who knows it well already may wish the cast and crew could have been more daring with their edits of the script, but strong visuals and performances, especially from the lead roles, and a very well thought-out transfer of a stage production to the screen guarantee that they will find this story worth revisiting here too,
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 17th November 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★