A Performance of Macbeth


I was intending to discuss this play in depth and then move on to a review of the DVD, but this performance was so damn good I need to talk about it NOW.  The recording I am talking about is this: A Performance of Macbeth.  I picked this version somewhat at random; I am a fan of Judi Dench, but there was really no reason other than that to chose this one over the dozen or so Macbeths Netflix has on offer.  I am so glad I did.  I was a Macbeth virgin; I am delighted that A Performance of Macbeth was my first.  It may have spoiled me for all Macbeths hereafter.

So, what is it that has excited me so much about this particular production?  Quite simply, the utterly fantastic performances of the actors.  In the mouths of these actors, every one of them, down to the boy playing young Macduff, the language LIVES.  I believe these actors. That has apparently become my criteria for a good performance — do I believe these actors are who they are supposed to be?  In this case, the answer is an emphatic yes.

While everyone is fantastic, it is Ian McKellan and Judi Dench who drive the excellence of this production. McKellan’s Macbeth seems more calculating. less conflicted than he appears in the text.  His initial doubts are more of convention than conscience — he should not murder the King, not because it is morally wrong, but because it would be against social norms.  Duncan is his kin, his King, and his guest;  to murder him would be a breach of order and obligation.  In the text, I read that scene (Act I, Scene VII) as a man wrestling with his conscience; one who truly does not want to do the deed, but can see no way around it.  McKellan’s Macbeth at this point is all about the responsibilities of a man in his position, not the moral implications of his treason.  It is not until the dagger speech in Act II that conscience, and with it, incipient madness, seem to take hold.  After the murder has been done, Macbeth truly begins to become unhinged.  In Act III, he initially seems to be under control, but is barely holding it together.  The director’s choice not to show Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene makes Macbeth’s madness all the more real — we do not know what he sees,  or why he is raving.  And rave he does!  Not in a scenery-chewing bombastic way, but in a way that makes him seem truly mad — he really does appear to be a man whose mind is “full of scorpions.” (And AGAIN with the damn spit! The man was practically foaming at the mouth.  Is that a requirement for Shakespearean anti-heroes?)  The decision not to show Banquo’s ghost, and to frame the appearance of the eight kings in Act IV as hallucinations abetted by the witches potion, makes the play less supernatural and more psychological.  I like this interpretation, but I have to admit, I would have been a bit confused if I had not had the text next to me, and thus had a clue as to what Macbeth was seeing.  Whether or not his mental imbalance is organic or created by the witches, his steely resolve to eliminate all of his opposition, and his confidence that he cannot be dethroned, (as the conditions the witches have set out for that occurrence are seemingly impossible) breeds in Macbeth a new and dangerous madness.  He holds to that; it is all that keeps him together, even while Scotland is falling apart around him.  His rigid control breaks briefly when he is told of Lady Macbeth’s suicide. McKellan’s delivery of the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Act V is chilling; you can see him losing his grip as he realizes that life holds nothing for him any longer.  His nobles and subjects have abandoned him, his wife is dead; all he has left are the witches promises.  And then he finds that the wood IS moving, and that Macduff was not born of woman in the conventional way.  The prophecies have come true, though not in the way he expected, and all hope is lost.  He will die fighting, but he will die.


Judi Dench’s performance is equally brilliant.  I was surprised by the passion in her Lady Macbeth, and the obvious chemistry between the two leads.  Dench’s Lady is a duplicitous bitch, easily playing first the gracious hostess and then the stunned, grieving subject.  She is all ambition and no remorse.  Not so much bullying as shaming Macbeth into action, and, once Duncan is killed, willing and able to put the murder behind them in a way that McKellan’s Macbeth is unable to do.  Until suddenly, she can’t.  (This is a problem I have with the play and not the performance; I will address it next week)  Lady Macbeth’s haunted nocturnal wanderings are brilliantly and heartbreakingly portrayed by Dench, her keening physically painful to hear.  It is a shattering performance, one which I shall use as the standard to judge all future Lady Macbeths.


The rest of the performances are all up to the standard set by Dench and McKellan.  I plan to address the witches in a later post, so all I will say here is that they are quietly creepy, and they make what could have been stereotypical, over familiar roles menacing and believable. I do not understand Malcolm’s perception of evil in himself, but that is not the fault of the production, but of the play.  Roger Rees is effective in the role of reluctant heir.  The only quibble I have with the performances (and it really is a tiny one) is in the final scene of Act IV, when Macduff learns that his wife and children have been killed. Shakespeare has given us a brilliantly written scene, a shattered man, asking over and over in shocked disbelief whether his entire family has been killed.  I did not get the shock or the grief.  I do not want weeping and wailing; the scene does not call for that.  I just did  not get the pain. I do not know if it was the actor’s or the director’s choice to play that scene so indifferently, but it just didn’t seem real to me.

The setting is extremely stark and minimal.  The performance begins with a circle of chairs on the stage.  The actors file in and sit.  A camera pans across the face of each actor, showing but not showing each deeply shadowed face.  Then the witches arise, and the performance begins.


The shadowed beginning sets the tone for the entire performance.  There is no scenery and very few props, but they are not needed.  The dark, stark setting initially seems too bare.  The lighting is only on the actors; the background is completely black.  It did seem a bit too dark at some times (although that may just be my living room — it is a bit too bright at midday for good TV viewing), but it is not at all claustrophobic.  The shadows are used most effectively, and the use of the actors in isolation, illuminated only by a swinging light in the climactic scene, increases the tension dramatically.  The camera work and the lighting are both brilliant.

The staging was interesting as well.  As I said above, there were no sets, and only the few props that were necessary to the story.  I did not feel their absence.  Perhaps if I were seeing the performance live, and could see the whole empty stage, it might have made a difference; with the tight focus on the actors, it was fine,  I can’t say why I feel this technique worked well with this performance, and not with the 1984 BBC production of Coriolanus I reviewed here.  It is likely due to the caliber of the performances.  The actors in this production are so damn good, I don’t NEED scenery.

There were a few interesting choices in the positioning of the actors. I usually am annoyed by lines that are supposed to be asides. Often the actors are placed in such a way as it would be implausible that they would not be overheard. I realize this is likely an artifact of live theater — there is a limited area to work with, and the audience has to be able to hear everything.  I did not have that problem with this production. Despite the small stage, the tight focus provides separation; asides feel properly aside.  In an interesting turn about from this, in Act V, when Macbeth is comforting himself with the mantra that he cannot be defeated “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,”  Malcolm and his cohorts are placed nearby, almost as if they are in a position to overhear Macbeth, and so use his own mad ravings to defeat him.  I do not know if that was the director’s intent, but that is how it comes across. I hope it was. I like it.  It builds on the impression present in this production that Macbeth, as always, is the architect of his own defeat; all that he has done is his own choice, the witches and his wife are just catalysts to get the reaction going; everything else is all him.

mac and the witchs

The costume palette here is mostly black and white, as it was in the BBC Coriolanus, but here I am okay with it.  The era is undefined; sequined tops on the witches mix with priestly garb for Duncan; Ross is dressed as an early 20th century civil servant, while Malcolm wears a timeless cabled jumper, and Lady Macbeth, a gown and coif of indeterminate era. It looks a bit like they raided the costume stores for whatever felt appropriate, but for some reason, it works.  There is some white hat/black hat element to the costuming, something I didn’t realize I had noticed until Act IV, scene III.  I had apparently internalized the costuming so much, that when Malcolm was lamenting his sins, I wrote “but he is wearing a WHITE jumper!” in my notes.  I will watch again (to check this out, and also, because it is just fucking brilliant), but I am pretty sure the innocent characters — Duncan, Lady Macduff and her son — are all in white, the only truly “evil” characters  — the witches and the Macbeths — are all in black, and everyone else is mixed, as there is good and evil in us all.  The only pops of color are the golden royal regalia (that looks more priestly than kingly to me) and  the Macbeth’s gloriously bloody hands after the murder of Duncan.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench

This being my first (and only) Macbeth to date, I really have no basis for comparison, but I find it hard to believe there are many out there better than this performance.  Go rent it.  You can thank me later.


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