It is always difficult to return to a play when your last experience of it was truly horrendous: such is the case with Macbeth. So despondent was I by the last local production I viewed I approached this newly modernised version, starring Patrick Stewart and directed by Rupert Goold, with trepidation. However thankfully, here is the perfect imagining of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to convert me back to a lover of this gory tale. Goold’s 2010 film--based on his 2007 stage production--is totally original and unlike any I have seen before; it is modern, fast and incredibly bloody, leaving me surprised that it only warranted a 12 certificate, but undoubtedly it is brilliant.
Set in an undefined and threatening central European world which serves to make the action even more unsettling, the viewer is left to wonder about where the action is actually taking place which similarly adds to the sense of claustrophobia as we see endless stretches of corridors filled by the witches, industrial grime and sinister, darkened rooms. Additionally, there are also no references to time frame, leaving the viewer at even more of a loss.
Stewart is one of the greatest Shakespearean actors ever and plays the lead role with great subtlety and vulnerability, which in the early stages of the film lead me to believe his Macbeth was not capable of the murders that follow. Stewart is likeable and seemingly not naturally bloodthirsty in the role, his motivation coming from Kate Fleetwood’s fascinating portrayal of Lady Macbeth. She is watchable with her pale skin, startling looks and tense limbs, if a little guilty of overplaying her descent into madness. However she is highly competent in the role of wife to the protoagonist. In contrast, Stewart is wonderfully understated, his greed and fear tinged with a private desperation, while his wife serves to encourage these weaknesses: in many ways she provides the backbone Stewart’s Macbeth sometimes appears to lack.
The camerawork is also significant. In Stewart’s integral “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech we see these lines spoken in one prolonged take, demonstrating amply how Stewart requires no assisting, no distracting special effects or props, simply one steady angle and those immortal words. In contrast the portrayal of the witches and other minor characters are where this production thrives in the “modernisation” category. Camerawork is jerky, uncomfortable and dramatic, the witches' guise as nurses offers many excuses for the extensive use of blood (and dead bodies aplenty too). From the outset they are disturbing, almost otherworldly despite their medical costuming. Their chants of “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee – Thane of Cawdor!” resemble those of the Greek chorus and set the dark tone that pervades the entire production.
And it is this darkness that provides my one complaint. The actors are faultless in the roles they portray, and I happily accept Macbeth is one of the more gory plays I could wish to watch but is there really need for a gun, riffle or World of War Craft moment in every other scene? Perhaps I’m too delicate for this sinister Macbeth business? All in all though, this is a stunning production of Shakespeare’s classic, the technical aspects matching the skills of the well-chosen cast. Perhaps the most impressive scene is that of the royal banquet, not only exquisitely directed in Macbeth’s vision of Banquo (Martin Turner) standing, bloody faced on the dining table and franticly dancing, but enhanced by the engrossing dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and topped off by the fittingly grand costuming. The scene is the embodiment of why Goold’s production is so chillingly brilliant and a must for a lover of the Bard...although one should perhaps be wary of the severed heads and dead bodies that tend to fly around.
Watch the performance online here.