Sir Patrick Stewart: Macbeth

Last Wednesday night, Great Performances aired a film version of Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth, which ran first  in the West End of London and then in Brooklyn, I believe?  starring Sir Patrick Stewart.  I was excited – I love the play, I love him … And Shakespeare!  I wanted desperately for there to be a Shakespeare production somewhere in the city when I went on Friday, but in all the city there wasn’t a thee or thou to be had … I had a few moments of palpitations when I discovered that the staging of The Merchant of Venice from Shakespeare in the Park was going to a formal stage – but then discovered it doesn’t open for almost two weeks.  So – Shakespeare!  Patrick Stewart!  Oh, yay.  I was anticipating that almost as much as going to New York.

Thinking about it afterward – and it got a lot of thought that night – I can’t entirely say I enjoyed it.  My first inclination is to say that one doesn’t enjoy Macbeth – but then, there are those who watch Saw and the Halloween movies and true crime shows on A&E for entertainment, so I won’t say that.  But “steeped in gore” is an accurate description of both Macbeth the man and Macbeth the play – it was horrific.  Not that there was so very much blood, really.  It was a judicious use of a relatively small volume of gore which made it effective.  I admire the play, love the words, love the actor, admired the performance – performances – and the production values and the decisions made with the show … enjoy?  No.

This was a contemporary-ish production, set in what looks very much like a stand-in for Lenin’s USSR in the 30’s: black and white televisions showing footage of parades and big guns firing, small badges with black eagles, and the overall feel of an impoverished communist state.  The settings themselves looked black and white: walls with either gray tile or gray paint peeling from the walls.  There seemed to be a sink in every room.  It was bleak, and minimalist, and dark, and uncomfortable …. except where it wasn’t: the Macbeths’ royal suite was plush.  There were long leather coats for the thanes, and rich jewel-tones for Lady Macbeth’s gowns (the red one being alarmingly low-cut on one breast.  Alarmingly).  And furry hats – mustn’t forget the furry hats.  It was black and white and red,  and uneasy.  Brilliant: the story jives amazingly well with the horror that was the 1930’s Soviet Union.  (I hadn’t even noticed the title they used – perfect.)

Actually, the setting was so pervasive, so very well done, so convincingly 30’s Russia, that when we joined Malcolm in England it actually crossed my mind in a half-formed thought that it was odd that England would commit 10,000 troops to aid Russia… When they spoke of Scotland there was a moment of disconnection, of being bumped out of the play for just an instant.  I don’t know what my reaction would have been if they’d have quietly edited out all references to Scotland, but it would have been interesting to try it … The Scottish Play, with the Scottish removed?

It begins in a hospital, the sort of hospital you would fight very hard to avoid being taken to (especially in view of what happens there in a minute), cold and moldering like the rest of the settings.  The soldier telling of Macbeth’s exploits is horribly wounded, but he needs to make sure the king hears what he has to tell.  And he does – Macbeth (and Banquo) saved the day, all over the place, against all odds, and he was wonderful.  The king sends him off to be treated, and goes to see to it that Macbeth is rewarded – and the three masked nurses surrounding the gurney roll the soldier away … and give him an injection … and he dies, clapping his hand to his neck where the needle went in.  The lightbulb started to go off about there – and sure enough, one of the “nurses” sticks a hand into the man’s belly wound and reaches in and removes his heart.  Hello, witches.

If nothing else had been done right in this staging, the use made of the Witches would have still salvaged this film.  Played by Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady, they were, quite simply, as creepy as hell.  Their scenes were filmed with jerky start-and-stop effects, and their motions were jerky and angular, and they chanted.  Death-bed makeup and intense eyes – just stunningly eerie.  When Macbeth and Banquo discover them, they are standing spaced out in a large room (no meeting on the blasted heath here, but in an empty ward), and behind the central Witch was a mannequin made out of the soldier’s coat, with a blood bag in place of a head wearing the glasses belonging to one of them.  Banquo tries to communicate with them, and the response is creepy in the text – but gruesome in the film:

…You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips…

The Witch on the left in that picture (the centrally placed one) has fingers to her (possibly skinny behind the mask) lips … they just aren’t her fingers.  That’s something else I didn’t pick up on first viewing; I am torn between fascinated and horrified delight and … just horror at finding that bit.  *shudder*

One of the worst things (in terms of great, I’ll need a teddy bear tonight) they did was this, though:

First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch:  All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

Just the head tilt on the Third Witch (on the left) was enough to have me glad I was watching with the lights on.  (There once was a poster on The Board Which Shall Etc. called Third Orc on the Left…)

I won’t delve too deeply into themes and the storyline of the play here; one day I will take it on, but not now – apart from making note that “double”, “fair and foul”, and “heart” are words often repeated that I’ll want to pay attention to.  But I will say … once the Witches have planted the idea in Macbeth’s mind, and abruptly it is supported by the arrival of Ross and Angus to proclaim him Thane of Cawdor.  He was already Glamis, and now is Cawdor … so … why not?  But when the King brings the thanes together he names his son, Malcolm, his heir – and Stewart’s reaction as Macbeth to this announcement was excellent – surprised dismay and anger, quickly concealed.

We meet Lady Macbeth, played by Kate Fleetwood, reading the letter her husband has sent her, apprising her of the whole tale so far.  Macbeth, I think, without the Witches, would have gone along pleased at the honors done him for his accomplishments in the war, and possibly going on to earn more.  But once the concept that he might become king is planted in his brain, he can’t help but work out how it could be made to come to pass – and where he would back off, his wife … will not.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

This is delivered as a spell, and she jerks as though it seizes her and physically does as the says, tearing the softness out of her.  A shadow splits her angular face as she speaks, and by the time she has finished she is steady and solid (and scary) and ready for what’s to come.

One of the only wrong notes in the production was how the two Macbeths come together.  He discovers her wearing a white satiny robe, mostly open, and rubber gloves, scrubbing the tiles of the wall.  It’s an odd occupation for the wife of the Thane of Glamis, even when Glamis is adjacent to Communist Moscow.  There is a great deal of push and pull in the scene, as he tries to revert to What Might Have Been, normalcy, safety, and she tries to steel him to what they have decided Must Be Done.   Again, left to himself he might stay on the straight and narrow, possibly toying with ideas of overthrow and other unorthodox ways of achieving upward mobility.  He has ambition – but it is a candle next to the gas giant of Lady M’s ambition.

It was a passionate reunion, that; I thought he was going to take her there on the kitchen table.

It was also odd, I thought, that King Duncan is brought into the kitchen (which, if now clean, didn’t really show it) amidst all the preparations for dinner, to be met by the couple, Lady Macbeth in her apron.  But the setting allows for a glimpse of three unusual kitchen maids – the Witches again.  Food was used almost as a weapon here – the chopping and plucking of fowl was sharp and almost angry – dangerous.  Not a pleasant kitchen, any more than the hospital was a healing sort of a place.

Again, as dinner progresses and the time is approaching that they plan to do something about these ambitions, Macbeth has second – or, by now, third and fourth thoughts as he decants the wine.  Is this a dagger I see before me?  – There is a heartbeat thrum under his soliloquy.  Lady M comes in to fetch the cake for dessert, and finds him vacillating (he stutters over the “d-deep damnation of his taking off”), and impugns his manhood until he sways back to the plan.  And then, hands joined, he with the decanter and she with the cake (chocolate?), they return to the party.

Lady M drugs the King’s servingmen’s drinks, and “Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.”  And Macbeth goes in to do the deed.  But he’s rattled, and carries the servingmen’s daggers away with him – and they’re needed on the scene to frame the men.  But Macbeth can’t make himself go back in – so she has to man up.

In the interview with Paula Zahn that aired right after the play, Sir Patrick said “There were times onstage when she scared me witless.  Her re-entrance…”  He never got used to it, he said.  Yes, yes indeed.  In killing the King he wound up with a tenth the gallon of blood she comes out wearing.

Meanwhile, a car pulls up – a big old sedan – and a man (who turns out to be Macduff, Michael Feast) pounds at the door.  This terrifies the Macbeths, who were just a little on edge already, but they pull themselves together enough – or she pulls them together enough – to go pretend to be woken up from a peaceful sleep.  The next scene is usually played for laughs, a welcome scene of ridiculousness in the midst of the grimness as the Porter drunkenly reacts to the knocking at the door.

Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of
Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you’ll sweat for’t.

Well, it’s not funny here.  The Porter here is aiming to be as creepy as the Witches.  There isn’t a shred of humor in this – instead it’s ugly and alarming.  This was a somewhat wrong note in the staging for me, not as off as the tile scrubbing, but – there’s a reason that Shakespeare put a scene in right there which could bring a laugh.  For the nastiness to be unrelieved is a difficult thing; even nervous laughter would have been welcome there, but Christopher Patrick Nolan as the Porter was. Not. Funny.

The murder is discovered, the servingmen killed “in the heat of passion” – and Lady M fakes a faint so that her husband won’t be questioned, because she senses that, rattled as he is, he might spill something.  And Duncan’s two sons (Scott Handy as Malcolm, Ben Carpenter as Donalbain) run for it in fear for their lives.  Which, of course, makes them look guilty – an unexpected bonus for Macbeth.

Macbeth, of course, starts off by taking the prophecy for guidance – but then begins to think about who will benefit.  The Witches also said that Banquo would not be king, but his son would, and his line would be kings … Why should Macbeth have gone through all of this only to gift the throne to Banquo’s get?  No, that part of the prophecy must be changed – and he determines that Banquo must go, and his son Fleance, last seen trying to filch the last of that cake from the pantry.  Two men are brought in who apparently had some grievance against Banquo already, and … Macbeth proceeds to slice bread, spread butter, fish pickles from a jar … as he calmly, coolly talks about what they’re there for, he makes a sandwich, and cuts it in half, and cuts half in half again.  Half he keeps, and a quarter goes to each of the other men – and the feeling is that as soon as they eat it they’re sealed to him and the evil he is doing.  It’s a thoroughly banal action – but the context makes it part of a ritual.  Stewart said in the interview that the scene was originally just the three of them standing talking, and he needed some piece of business to be doing during it.  This was a marvelous idea: cool, calm, and somehow all the more threatening for all of that.

Macbeth has his feet under him now – the taste of blood is in his mouth, and he’s past the fears and qualms he started out with.  Now it’s Lady Macbeth who is growing afraid – she has lost control of him, and knew nothing about the plans against Banquo.  It’s an interesting echo of Hamlet when they discuss “terrible dreams that shake us nightly” …

It’s on a perfectly period-looking train that the murderers – joined by a third, one of Macbeth’s men – go after Banquo.  First they poison him through coffee from the coffee cart – and then there are knives and guns and panic and terror … and Banquo falls.  And he rises.  He has a banquet to attend.

The scene before the feast was frightening.  The roles have reversed: Lady Macbeth is no longer in any form of control whatsoever.  She led – but the unsuspected successes so far have given him an infusion of confidence and he has leap-frogged over her.  And she is terrified – of him, of the situation.  One murder, planned together and pulled off in tandem, was one thing – but he never consulted her about Banquo and Fleance, and there is more going on …

The feast has a strange jollity to it – not a nice strange, but tense and laugh-or-die strange.  The Porter was either never a simple Porter, or he was given a rise, because he’s in uniform at the table.  None of them seem quite sure when is the proper time to laugh, or how to react, and Macbeth is erratic.  There was one conceit I loved about this scene, and one I hated … What I loved was the use, once more, of the Witches.  They served at table … When they beg Macbeth to be seated, he replies that the table is full.

Lennox: Here is a place reserved, sir.
Macbeth: Where?
Lennox: Here, my good lord.

Normally, this is where Banquo’s ghost is introduced, sitting in that chair.  Not here – no, it’s one of the Witches there.  She and Macbeth lock eyes as she vacates the seat and he takes her place, and she and the other two leave.  And then comes Banquo, stepping up onto the table just past an oblivious Lady M, striding silently down the center of the table, and standing over Macbeth until he looks up from his soup.  And no one else can see him, making Macbeth’s reaction hard to explain.

Things calm – the ghost disappears for the moment – and they proceed to the part I hated.  Someone puts on a gramophone record – very Russian sounding … and someone gets a mop … and they dance.  And apparently it’s a bit like musical chairs, only with cleaning implements – whoever is caught without a partner when the music is stopped has to dance with the mop.  It was  Ross with the glasses, who seemed unduly alarmed at being caught with the mop.  I missed something here …

Again Lady Macbeth is afraid of what her husband will say – he’s already let out a great deal in his terror – and tries to pass the whole thing off as a long-term affliction.  Better to have him deemed as a bit unhinged than to have him give away everything.  “Question enrages him!”  They manage to get rid of the guests – stand not upon the order of your going – and he goes back to his soup.  “I am in blood steeped so deep” … Not that it troubles him so very unduly; the soup has more of his attention.  He is tired, though; again as in Hamlet, sleep is an issue here.  They agree that sleep would be good – and he decides he needs to seek out the Witches again.

And there are some of the most famous lines in the play – “By the pricking of my thumbs” … and, of course, “Double double”, which raised the bar on creepy, particularly effective in its cadences.  Corpses (animated), and blood – just enough to make it horrible (who knew that faint and muted bloodstains would be worse than bright red dripping ones?)  And here is where Macbeth is given news that makes him virtual king of the world: the new prophecies, no man of woman born and Birnam Wood, give him every confidence that he is invincible – nothing can stop him now.

The sequence with Macduff’s family is awful – proceeding from one horror to the next – and it highlights one of the major strong points of this production: it gives minor characters tremendous personality.  Here, one of Macduff’s daughters is given quite the obnoxious persona – sitting on a cot with a book (which should have endeared her to me), she delivered her lines with a snottiness that slanted the scene in a whole new way.

Strangely, two of the murderers of the family here were the elevated Porter and Macbeth himself.  The effect of the scene made it seem that they might have been hallucinations; the whole scene was bleached of color, and bleak.

And then followed the finest scene in the film.  Ross arrives in England to provide intelligence for Malcolm … and though he dodges the issue (“No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em”) has no choice in the end but to tell Macduff about the murder of his family.  Once again the characterizations were brilliant: Malcolm, calm though shaken, a leader and a good one; Ross, cowardly and frightened, and snapping because he’s frightened and ashamed, because though he was tortured for the location of the family they didn’t have to torture him for all that long, and he failed to get them away before the killers got there; and Macduff, eviscerated.  Extraordinary performances by Feast, Handy, and Tim Treloar as Ross.

Meanwhile, it has all proven to be too much for Lady Macbeth.  She’s sleeping – but it’s not what you might call restful sleep.  Because based on the pattern of her behavior, a gentlewoman has asked a doctor to join her in vigil – and sure enough Lady Macbeth rises and walks, though still asleep.  And she talks – in her unconscious state she spills everything that she was so afraid her husband would let slip.  It’s a masterful performance – and, unsurprisingly, frightening.  Here’s another instance of personality injected into a minor character: the gentlewoman was terrific.  Scots (the only brogue in the film), and sarcastic – she was exasperated by the ineffectuality of the doctor, and showed it.  (Lady Macbeth gives a heart-rending shriek, at which he exclaims “Oh, what a sigh” … The lady was right, he’s an idiot.)  “Goodnight, good doctor!”

The Porter, who was so spectacularly unfunny during the “Knock knock” scene (who was it who said Macbeth is basically one morbid knock-knock joke?), was here near the end revealed to be Seyton.  I have no idea how most productions have it pronounced, but here it was “Satan” … Yeah, that worked.   And I believe he is usually the faithful servant, good and true … Not so much here.  He was rude, arrogant, and insolent.  It was so nice to see him killed … There is an outcry offstage, and Macbeth sends him to see what goes on; Macbeth stays where he is musing on how hardened, or jaded, or hollowed out he has become.  And Seyton returns with the callously delivered news that “the queen, my lord, is dead” …

I’ve heard the story now a couple of times, about Sir Ian McKellen’s advice to Sir Patrick Stewart on the delivery of this soliloquy.  (“The important word is ‘and'”.)  And this is different from how I’ve heard it elsewhere, certainly.  It is remarkable how that one shift in emphasis tightens the meaning, makes the weight of the long years ahead seem so much greater. Because at this point in the play Macbeth is confident that he will not be defeated.  He is the King anointed, albeit by something quite a lot darker than God, and he is meant to be here, and by the prophecies he can’t be beaten by anyone – he thinks.  There will be long lonely life – and he’s still realizing that having is not so fine a thing as the wanting made it seem.  The lack of sleep comes back again here – he’s exhausted, and a shell of what he was when the whole thing began.  There’s a tinge of what Geoffrey Tennant spoke of in the episode of Slings and Arrows – his better half is dead, and now he faces long years alone.  And they will be long years, because he truly cannot imagine himself losing.  Birnam Wood’s not going anywhere, after all.

Except it does.  Though – and I need to watch this scene again (not the whole thing, I don’t think I can do that yet) – they didn’t seem to do this in the film.  Though Malcolm delivers the line, I didn’t see any greenery either carried or thrown down.

All right, so the forest is coming to the castle – still, Macbeth cannot be killed by any man of woman born.  He is so confident that as the battle rages on in the castle he winds up back at the banquet table, getting drunk.  Why not?  Macduff finds him there – comes at him much as Banquo did, over the table – and drunk though he may be Macbeth shoots him. I saw an article that mentioned that at least one line they cut from the stage performance made its way back for the film: “Before my body I throw my warlike shield” … And that shield, given a complete lack of actual shields, is wine, poured over his head.  “This great clatter” isn’t swordplay here, but gunfire; the blades Macduff and Macbeth wield are not swords either, but knives.  Macbeth is winning, with the help of that bullet wound, until he reveals the source of his confidence.  And Macduff informs him that he was “from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d”.  Macbeth has him at knifepoint – but at this news he gives up.

Macduff must have used his knife to sever the tyrant’s head …  (*pause for reflection on all that means*)  He brings it to Malcolm, and it was hard to look away from it in Macduff’s blood-soaked hands.  Now, in most cases I believe the head is carried by the hair: not an option here, obviously.  Which made a grisly scene just that much more grisly …

It was a strong film – in many ways.  The performances were powerful; the staging was weird (wyrd, even) and unsettling.  And it was strong like a good whiskey – not for the faint of heart.   Excellent, excellent stuff.

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