Performed by the National Theatre of Great Britain
National Theatre Live in conjunction with Fathom Events brings filmed plays to movie theatres. Later this year, you can see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and Frankenstein (with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch each playing the monster and Victor Frankenstein on alternate nights). Its most recent offering is Macbeth.
Is a play that is filmed, a play or a film?
In the waning days of Judy Garland's career, in 1967, she appeared on Broadway in a show entitled, At Home at The Palace. She was in poor voice, with little of the phenomenal vocal pyrotechnics displayed on her 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall. In William Goldman's excellent book, The Season, he looks at the 1967-68 Broadway season. Concerning the Garland show, he heard critics wondering if it was just a singing engagement or really theatre. Goldman concluded that it must be theatre because it sure as hell wasn't singing.
And so I conclude that The National Theatre's Macbeth must be theatre because it sure as hell isn't a movie. There is something about filming a theatrical performance that rarely brings out the best in a play or the actors in it. I have only seen one play filmed as a play that was successful, Vanya on 42nd Street, but it was not really a filmed play. Vanya was filmed by Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre) from a translation of the Chekhov play by David Mamet and the screenplay by Andre Gregory. It was filmed without an audience and as a 'rehearsal.' It worked mainly because it tried to be as simple as possible.
Macbeth has been filmed more times than, as people use to say, Carter has little liver pills. Not only has the play been made into many movies and TV shows, but it has been adapted so many times that the variations are as numerous as the murders in the original play (among my favorite Macbeth-inspired films is the 1955 Joe Macbeth directed by Ken Hughes and starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman as the deadly couple).
In this National Theatre version, the setting is a post-civil war country where people struggle to stay alive. The 'costumes' are all patched together odds and ends, some body armour is held together with shipping tape. The set is dominated by a large ramp and many of the entrances and exits are made on this ramp. Visually, the ramp serves to break up the action and to add a dangerous, sweeping element to the bombed out world depicted by the other set elements.
While it is an excellent idea to set this political play in a post-civil-war modern country, the execution falls short because of many unwise choices. For example, King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) is dressed in a red suit and shoes which make him stand out (the intention I assume) but not in a good way. He looks like a pimp who suddenly fell into this dark world from a 1970's drug dealers' convention. After Macbeth kills him (are there spoilers in Shakespeare?), Macbeth starts wearing red but not as a complete ensemble as Duncan did (maybe the war left only a limited amount of red cloth in the country and two complete red suits were not available).
Various kinds of blades sans hilts are on display as killing devices along with a variety of knives (there are no guns presumably because this is Great Britain and not Florida - ok, just a joke, but there really are no weapons other than swords and knives in this production) but the killing that takes place is about as real as the killing in a Lone Ranger episode. Again, back to the killing of Duncan, when Macbeth, after the foul deed, hands the bloody knives to Lady Macbeth and she drops them to the ground, these knives that killed three men make the sound of one hand clapping. Worse, some murders are committed with what appear to be pen knives. While blood and gore do not a great battle scene make, there has to be some attempt to make the violence palpable.
All of this is to say - the performances did not distract me from noticing the botched incidentals. It is never easy to make a filmed play come alive, but it is impossible when the actors are DOA. Macbeth (Rory Kinnear, not to be confused with his father Roy Kinnear who died in an accident while making a film in 1988 - Rory is best known for playing Bill Tanner in the James Bond films Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre,) is portrayed as a hail-fellow-well-met who nervously laughs when the three Witches tell him of his soon-to-be-announced promotion and eventual crown. He alternates between being aghast at the idea of murder and aghast at the idea of being a coward, giving us a poster performance of OCD as, everywhere he goes, he sees people he has murdered or ordered murdered. Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) starts out with assassination anxiety and ends with her own OCD symptoms (those bloody hands!). Both leave themselves nowhere to go but into a full Don Knotts mode.
When, at the end, Macbeth is confronted by Macduff whose family he has had all murdered, they engage in the kind of fighting that professional wrestlers would be ashamed to perform. He disarms Macduff and appears invincible based on the three Witches' promise that no man of woman born can kill him. Then (another spoiler alert!), Macduff reveals he was 'untimely ripped' from his mother's womb. Macbeth shows courage in spite of this news that 'palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our ear, And break it to our hope.' He is done in by that pen knife that so many of these warriors carry with them.
And back we go again to Judy. When she did Meet Me In St. Louis, the songwriters wrote her a great song to sing to a sad Margaret O'Brien. The only problem was that it was so sad and maudlin that it made Judy cry whenever she sang it. She told the writers she needed another song and they said, 'why, it makes you cry it's so good' and Judy replied - it's not me who is supposed to cry, it's the people in the audience. And I would say to the National Theatre - it's not the actors who are supposed to shake in their boots, it's the audience.
'Macbeth' Starring Rory Kinnear
Olivier, National Theatre, London; 1200 seats; £50 ($70) top. Opened, reviewed, March 6, 2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A National Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.
CREATIVE: Directed by Rufus Norris; Design, Rae Smith; lighting, James Farmcombe; sound, Paul Arditti; costumes, Moritz Junge; music, Orlando Gough; movement, Imogen Knight.
CAST: Nadia Albina, Michael Balogun, Stephen Boxer, Anne-Marie Duff, Trevor Fox, Andrew Frame, Kevin Harvey, Sarah Homer, Hannah Hutch, Nicholas Karimi, Rory Kinnear, Joshua Lacey, Penny Lacey, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Patrick O'Kane, Amaka Okafor, Hauk Pattison, Alana Ramsey, Beatrice Scirocchi, Rakhee Shamar, Laetitia Stott, Parth Thakerar.