Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 13/31: Macbeth (BBC Four).

Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

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