Number four in a series of six.
MACBETH 1979 – directed by Philip Casson - adapted for TV by Trevor Nunn - produced by Trevor Nunn –
The players are: Macbeth (King's General, Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland) - Ian McKellen, Lady Macbeth – Judi Dench, Banquo (General and Thane of Lochaber) - John Woodvine, First Witch - Marie Kean, Second Witch - Judith Harte, Gentlewoman – also by Judith Harte, Third Witch - Susan Dury, Lady Macduff – wife of The Thane of Fife - also by Susan Dury, King Duncan – elected King of Scotland - Griffith Jones, Malcolm (oldest son &
Prince of Cumberland) - Roger Rees, Donalbain (youngest son) beard/limp - Greg Hicks, Seyton – also by Greg Hicks, Sergeant - David Howey, 1st Murderer, Doctor – also by David Howey, Ross (Macduff's cousin, Thane of Ross, deserted Duncan, and Macbeth left the gate to Macduff's castle open) – Ian McDiarnid
Shot on video – 1:133 screen ratio in 1979 – staged in totally black theater-in-the-round. Within the limitations of shooting in this setting, Philip Casson has taken full advantage of cine-technique, making great use of close-ups. He often asks actors to deliver lines in both voice-over action and directly to camera ….. sometimes in a harsh whisper. All of these techniques greatly enhance the audience’s enjoyment of the long soliloquies, which I find hard to follow in a stage performance.
I’ve just screened three other movie adaptations of this play that were filmed on luxurious sets, in beautiful and demanding locations, and with stunning costuming. Casson and his gifted cast, by some magical means, succeed in making us conjure up from the depths of his black backgrounds, virtually all the missing props, the beautiful sets and the misty, Scottish winter landscape. He is in full command of his medium.
Let’s get my nit-picking out of the way: The DVD, which I played had no subtitles and a web search could not find a transcript of Trevor Nunn’s adaptation. So, although I watched it with headphones I still had to guess what they’re saying most of the time. If you have your laptop in front of you while watching the movie, you can scroll the original script. But that can gets tedious because he skips dialogue and whole scenes, so you have to do a search for the next line. Also…. the black costumes bleed into the black background. They do try to help this with a little rim light from the back, but it doesn’t always work.
Video technology in 1979 was in its infancy and it gave us images that were vastly inferior to film. Film, being about 4 times more costly, was not a choice for these producers; also this project was shot solely for television broadcast. This means that the images were inherently soft and made more so by low light and
large lens apertures resulting in limited depth of field. So as actors moved closer to and further way from the camera they tended to go in and out of focus. On a film set there’s a camera assistant called the “focus puller”… without going into details, it’s his job to keep the primary subject sharply in focus.
All this is complicated by “attitude” – if you where shooting for the “small” screen in 1979 the limitations were not as demanding because it’s just an inherently soft image. But on a 60 foot movie screen focus mistakes are unacceptable… re-shoots can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The performances by Ian McKellen and Judi Dench were outstanding! I’d like to see them in a Kurzel or Polanski movie version… or conversely - the Philip Casson full-blown movie adaptation.
ACT 1, SCENE 4: The actors and the director deserve a lot of credit for successfully conveying the subtlety of this scene. At that time in history, the Kingship of Scotland was determined by Thanes, who choose the King by vote. However, King Duncan could influence their choice by royal prerogative and he elevated his oldest son, Malcolm (who’s never seen battle), to Prince of Cumberland; giving him a clear shot at the Kingship. King Duncan naturally assumed that Macbeth would feel sufficiently rewarded with his new title, Thane of Cawdor, and all the lands and processions that went with it.
Malcolm displaces Macbeth as he steps in front of the King to receive his new title. However, Macbeth, a proven and fearless warrior, knows a challenge when he sees one; now emboldened by the Witches’ prophecy – he is clearly affronted.
This scene is a turning point in Macbeth’s attitude. Even after he was awarded
the new title, Thane of Cawdor, he still was not stirred into action by the second
half of the prophecy: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
without my stir.”
At that moment Macbeth realizes that if he wants to be King, he will have to kill Duncan and take the crown. He has no recourse; their first child died in a birth that left Lady Macbeth unable to have more children. Therefore Macbeth could
never legally become king… they are unable to provide an heir. Of course he could take Henry VIII’s path,... but... that's another movie.
Macbeth advanced in the king’s hierarchy through his performance of brave deeds – he was an unstoppable warrior on the battlefield. However, once he achieved the kingship he was unprepared to rule…. he simply didn’t know how. He resorted to using the only skills he had…. he killed all those who threatened
This is a common work-a-day dilemma faced by all corporations… and even governments – a cunning social strategist becomes the chief executive officer -
the brilliant inventor conceives the ultimate widget - the good campaigner at last
wins his office…. and then they fail. This should start to sound familiar by now.
Director Philip Casson and producer Trevor Nunn – have put together a formidable cast, headed up by Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. If you have seen other productions with lavish costuming and scenery or multi-million dollar movie versions you are very familiar with all the inventive and clever props and locations. Casson and Nunn have given you an infinitely black background
only… all those trappings will not be missed.