Macbeth (1979)

*. At university I had a professor who, dismayed at the way Shakespeare was being updated and made modern in so many new adaptations, said that he just wanted to see the actors coming out in barrels and reading the lines. With this production of Macbeth he would have got his wish. Or something close to it.
*. It’s directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, based on a production Nunn did at The Other Place theatre in 1976. The Other Place is what’s known as a “black box” theatre, and is described by Ian McKellen (playing Macbeth here) in a video intro to the DVD as a “tin hut” that seated around 100. So this became known as “the minimalist Macbeth,” and apparently had the cast sitting around in a circle (as this film version begins) with no costume changes or scenery. McKellen says the whole thing only cost £250 to produce. Nunn’s objective was to just “photograph the text.”
*. I doubt Casson’s movie, shot on videotape (and looking it!) for British television, cost much more than that. No music. Just unaccommodated actors moving about a black space, with lots of close-ups and soliloquies presented without any sense of naturalism.
*. So . . . actors reading the lines then. You can forget about seeing Banquo’s ghost, or any of Macbeth’s visions. Which does make you wonder about how pure such an approach really is. Shakespeare’s audience would have been expecting more of a show, I’m sure.
*. There’s some of the intimacy you might expect in a little theatre production of the play, and the killing of Macduff’s son is chilling in its way, but that’s all I can say for it. Minimalism is fine up to a point, but then starts to work in reverse. You don’t even get some leafy branches to stand in for Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and as for Macbeth’s noggin being brought in at the end you can forget it. The daggers are obvious props. The costumes seem like a rag-bag of whatever happened to be lying around. I couldn’t put a date to them. Leather jerkins, nineteenth-century court uniforms, black stockings over the heads of the killers. None of it adds up, and the sense I had was that nobody really cared.
*. Judi Dench is fine as Lady M., and lets loose with one hell of a wail in her nightwalking scene. I should have timed it. McKellen I did not care for, though I don’t think it was his fault. He’d done some TV work before this but I don’t think any movies yet, and I think his performance would have worked very well on stage. I don’t think it works on film, at least by today’s standards. He spends a lot of time staring, wide-eyed and unblinking, into the camera. He doesn’t give a very strong sense of a tortured mind though, or express the full depth of Macbeth’s doubts and hesitancies. Overall, I found it a mannered performance, and not in a good way.
*. Despite Macbeth being one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and tightly paced, this one drags on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. They may have been trying for a full text version, at least of the parts we think Shakespeare actually wrote. Act 2 Scene 4 is rarely played, and I was so surprised to see it here I had to go to the bookshelf to find out what was going on. So it has that going for it too. But students of Shakespeare will want to look elsewhere for their study notes, and even drama majors will just want to take some quick notes on how a black box production works, and why you might not want to bother filming one.

12 thoughts on “Macbeth (1979)

  1. Alex Good Post author

    This may be as good a place as any to let you know I’ll be cutting back to three or four updates a week for the next little while. Still Shakespeare on Tuesdays and a quiz on Fridays, but probably only a couple of other sets of notes added per week. I thought I’d choose this route instead of going on full hiatus for a couple of months. We’ll see how it goes.

    Reply
      1. fragglerocking

        I’ll be glad when the 365 is over, it’s a lot of work for one post, but will still probably keep to Sundays only on the Universe blog, might go back to the movie blog next year, or something, not decided really.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        The 365 project is a commitment, but it keeps you on a schedule. It’s always a question how much time you want to put into a hobby like a website.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Seems like they took the minimalist look of the black box and figured dressing it up any more as a proper “movie” would somehow take away from that. So it’s bare bones. Has a couple of moments, but it’s not good film.

      Reply
  2. Bookstooge

    What’s the point of a movie if it doesn’t entertain you? If you want Shakespeare, go watch a play for goodness sake! (that’s a generic you, not an “Alex” you). You won’t catch me watching something like this…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      I think movies like this are just meant to be records of a particular performance. That’s about it. But I’m not sure I would have been keen on seeing it on stage.

      Reply

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