Wouldst Judge Diane Wild have Dame Judi Dench clad in tea towels, or relinquish Sir Ian McKellen to the vagaries of a cable-knit sweater?
"Thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it."—Lady Macbeth, to her husband
This version of William Shakespeare's Macbeth is a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed for British television in 1979. There is no attempt to translate what was on the stage for the screen, so what appears on the DVD is nearly identical to their live production.
Director Trevor Nunn stripped the play down to bare elements, with minimal scenery, lighting, and costume changes, and only minor cuts to the original play. Instead, the focus is on the words of one of our greatest writers as performed by some of our finest actors. Ian McKellen takes on the title role as the man who would be king, and Judi Dench plays the woman who will help him get there.
Returning home from war with fellow general Banquo, Macbeth meets three witches who prophesize that he will be king. Spurred on by his wife he kills King Duncan, which sets off a chain of murders to cover his tracks and preserve the throne for his heirs.
Now told by the witches to "beware Macduff," he is nonetheless convinced of his invincibility by their next two declarations: "None of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him."
Enter Duncan's son Malcolm with Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped," and with his troops bearing branches from Birnam Wood to Macbeth's stronghold of Dunsinane. A Shakespearean tragedy wouldn't be complete without a bloodbath at the end, with the tragic hero meeting his inevitable demise.
More than a pawn in his wife's plot, Macbeth is first intrigued by the witches' promises, then pensive about his ambitions, then allows his wife to make the first leap to murder. Macbeth is a man who knows the acts he commits are wrong, and is tormented by his guilt, and McKellen brilliantly captures a man we empathize with even as we feel antipathy for his actions.
Dench is a powerful Lady Macbeth, and bearer of the strongest performance amid a host of strong performances. Often seen as the true villain of the play, Lady Macbeth here is as pitiable in her descent into madness as she was contemptible in her eager ambition.
The production is so Spartan that what is there takes on an exaggerated importance, making the anachronistic costumes a bit of a distracting puzzle. Macbeth seems to return home at the beginning in WWI-era outfit, Lady Macbeth appears in what looks to me like a Salem witch hunt era costume, while Prince Malcolm (Roger Rees) wears a cable knit sweater that wouldn't be out of place today.
Considering the source material was a low-budget television production from the '70s, the quality of the sound and image are understandably poor. The visuals are grainy and the harsh lighting damages contrast and color scheme. In fact, the muddy tones, muted color palette, and spot lighting often make the image appear black and white. Though this is supposed to be a stereo mix, the sound seems to come mainly from the front center speaker.
The extras are padded with text filmographies of the two lead actors and a timeline of Shakespeare's life—moderately interesting, but nothing a quick Google search wouldn't reveal—but the two featurettes with Ian McKellen are interesting. He speaks about the frugal TV production, where actors provided the sound effects and tea towels became head scarves, and gives detailed information on the main actors and the director's intention to "photograph the text" with his minimalist staging.
My bigger issue with this Macbeth is that the message isn't tailored to the medium. Taking the "live" out of live theatre is one loss, and despite the fine extras, using television or DVD to portray an unaltered stage play doesn't use the technology to even a fraction of its full extent.
Still, I might never see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live, and I'll certainly never have the chance to see Ian McKellen and Judi Dench on stage, so this Macbeth is a welcome release. This is unabashedly a Macbeth for the Shakespeare lover. For a fuller film experience, though, it can't beat the bloody, but passionate, 1971 version by Roman Polanski.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction to Macbeth with Ian McKellen
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