Earls on film

Macbeth, BBC Four, 12 December 2010

Tempted by tricksters into pursuing illusory dreams of glory, a set of deeply unlikeable characters took their first faltering steps towards their sordid ambitions, only to find themselves plumbing the depths of depravity in a spectacle of gut-wrenching terror.

But enough about The X Factor. A high-minded cultural alternative was on offer at the same time over on BBC Four, which had decided to schedule Rupert Goold’s film version of his stage production of Macbeth against the TV talent show.

The film proved itself to be a more complete realisation of what were obviously the cinematic ambitions of the original theatre production.

The Chichester stage set had featured a lift that transported characters in and out of the subterranean world of the play. Much of the action centred on a tiled kitchen with a white sink prominent throughout. Newsreel of Soviet era battles was projected onto the back wall to complement the cast’s contemporaneous uniforms.

Macduff’s murder took place in a train carriage, which was suggested to our imaginary forces by chairs, straphangers and sound effects. The witches were nurses, cooks and servants whose malevolent presence punctuated the action.

So to see all of these features given an extra level of screen realism forcefully hinted that the stage production had been Goold’s imperfect attempt to make concrete his particular vision of the play, a project that could only be fully accomplished via the medium of film.

The film maintained the original production’s reversal of the first two scenes enabling the general historical context of the play to be set out, only then to focus on the witches and their role in the action.

The first meeting with the witches, as Macbeth and Banquo entered the empty vastness of the ballroom and found his nemeses stood in rigid formation around their drip stand mannequin with its bleeding heart and glasses, was an arresting sight. They acted throughout like an insurgent robot army from another dimension.

Welbeck Abbey with its underground ballroom and tunnels was perhaps the only location in the country where filming could reproduce the implied world of the stage version.

But with film to play with, Goold eventually took the brakes off his imagination completely and let it rip.

The speeded up movements and echoey distorted voices of the nurses as they prepared to give Macbeth electrostatically charged premonitions of his fate using reanimated corpses, created a sequence that assaulted the senses with its exhilarating display of otherworldly power.

Their trochaic tetrameter pounded out like a rap, at which point Akala of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, if he had been watching, would surely have sat upright and started taking notes.

The other big advantage of film is its ability to show us the close-up detail of a performer’s facial acting.

Having realised the full implications of his vaulting ambition and with his face filling the screen, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth looked off into the darkness with small pin-pricks of light shining from his eyes to tell us “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires”.

When gazing on the vision of Banquo’s heirs, Macbeth’s head loomed so large that this lower jaw and forehead were cropped out of shot. His dead eyes told us just as much as his words.

But this world of close-up was one in which the more dramatic features of Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth became the true gauge of the couple’s downward spiral.

While Macbeth gave us a series of variations on the theme of grim, every new gradation of his wife’s decline from guilt into despair, madness and self-destruction was etched in detail onto the hypnotic, geometrical contours of her face.

However, as if to underline that no medium is ever perfect, film also showed itself to have its disadvantages.

Although this version of the stage production could show us more detail than a front row seat in the Minerva Theatre ever could, it was still restricted by its basis in a theatre text rather than a film screenplay.

There were some minor excursions to show us Macbeth’s purges, but the medium felt underused for having only to replicate a series of events that were originally presented in a theatre.

The stage production had an interval in the middle of the banquet scene which enabled a neat trick to be performed that was not reproduced in the screen version.

Just before the break, Banquo appeared and walked the length of the dining table causing Macbeth to react in horror. This action was cut short by the interval. After the audience returned for the second half the appearance of Banquo was repeated, but this time with Banquo invisible and Macbeth reacting to thin air.

The BBC Four production was a slick studio album compared with the urgent warts-and-all immediacy of NT Live, which still remains the best medium for conveying the excitement of live performance.

But as television adaptations of Shakespeare go, this has to count among the very best.

Shame then, that the overnight viewing figures showed that just 252,000 viewers or 0.8% of the available audience watched the broadcast.

The good news is that a DVD of this Macbeth is to be released next year.

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