*. This adaptation of Macbeth is part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told line-up of four of the bard’s most popular plays. The tetralogy consists of Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew.
*. Now which of one of those plays is not like the others? Well, they all have their unique qualities but Macbeth is the only tragedy while the other three are all comedies. And early comedies at that.
*. There’s a bit of a challenge here then, because while Macbeth has been adapted many times in modern settings the spirit of these ShakespeaRe-Told productions is far lighter. Just take the set-up here. Joe Macbeth (James McAvoy) is a chef in an upscale eatery that I believe is supposed to be in Glasgow. The culinary setting recalls the Britcom Chef! from the 1990s, so we’re already primed for some laughs. Ella (Keeley Hawes) is Joe’s wife (she “has massive bollocks” and sings “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercdes Benz”), while Billy Banquo is a fellow chef. Duncan is the owner of the establishment, where his two sons also work.
*. One night Joe and Billy are met by three bin men taking away the garbage in the alley behind the restaurant. They make some enigmatic pronouncements on the future of both chefs and then drive off. Macbeth and his wife decide to kill Duncan and take over the restaurant, and soon find themselves wading into blood so deep there’s no going back. Finally, Macbeth is killed by Macduff when a seemingly impossible prophecy comes true.
*. I think you can tell from this that there was a lot of comic potential. The witches as bin men, for example, with the local landfill standing in for the heath. And the Britcom qualities of some of the kitchen dialogue. At one point someone mentions Gordon Ramsay and they are warned not to mention his name but only refer to him as “the Scottish chef.” Which is a play on the idea that you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” in a theatre but instead refer to it as “the Scottish play.” So that was cute, and news to me since I didn’t know Gordon Ramsay was Scottish.
*. But then things take a darker turn. This isn’t a comedy. The drunken porter turns into an exterminator, which seemed like a joke that I wasn’t getting. There are are the killers, who have been imported from the 11th century, meaning Yugoslavia. I wasn’t sure what was up with that. Of course people get killed, albeit offstage, and there are bloody visions. Most bizarre of all, we find out that Lady Macbeth did have a child that she lost, which is another down note.
*. Along with the shift in tone there’s a loss of energy. The movie feels like it’s running out of gas in its second half. The ways they update the play don’t work as well. Having Banquo’s “ghost” appear at the feast by way of a video message he recorded on his phone must have seemed like a clever idea at the time, but it doesn’t play well. And the prophecy that comes true is such a stretch I wasn’t even sure what was going on.
*. McAvoy is quite good. In fact, his performance made me think he’d probably do well playing the role straight. He’d look interesting in the part anyway. But the rest of the cast don’t stand out and the production itself feels quite constrained. In the end, I don’t think the kitchen setting was a wise move, as it’s too big a stretch to have key plot points make sense and it’s too limiting in terms of the action. Every modern re-telling of Shakespeare is a roll of the dice, and while there have been many that have turned out worse than this, I don’t think they did anything that stands out as special here either.