Shakespeare Saturday: You Can Say Macbeth if You Watch it On A Screen

Heyo! Welcome to the very last of Shakespeare-a-palooza 2016’s Shakespeare Saturdays! The next time you see me (C), Nerd Cactus will be in lovely, amazing Stratford, Ontario for some Shakespeare! (And Moliere, Virgil, Shakespeare in Love, and A Chorus Line. Yeah, we’re seeing eight plays.) My God, am I excited! I’ve spent the last few days obsessively checking the weather (especially because there’s a low pressure system just to the south of us and planes don’t take off in storms), looking for cool places to eat that we didn’t try last year, and watching all the trailers for the plays at least four times.

But I’ve taken a break from all that to give you a few offerings of what to watch. Because not seeing a play live is no excuse to never see it at all. In this day and age of film, there are a ton of ways to experience the Bard, and it is my job today to share a few of those with you.

Macbeth should not involve kilts. I just want to throw that out there. Unless it’s being staged out-of-period, or something, of course, because plays are often staged in different periods to highlight different aspects of the narrative. But, for the most part, Macbeth is kept in period. As  such, if you see a kilt… blow it a raspberry. No kilts. It’s too early in Scottish history for kilts. At most, you’re going to have brats (pronounced like the abbreviated version of bratwurst, not like annoying kids), which eventually developed into the earliest form of the kilt much later. But I digress. Well, not that much. A lot of people don’t realize that Macbeth was a real dude; Shakespeare’s version is the supernatural version of that story, focusing more on how the Devil is evil and we should not fall prey to his workings. (Seriously. Modern audiences tend to focus on the unchecked ambition thing, but Jacobean audiences would’ve known Shakespeare was writing about the threat of the Devil.)

While Hamlet is my favorite of the Big Four (Othello being the other), I am fond enough of Macbeth that I tend to be really damn critical of adaptations. I’ve fallen asleep during boring ones, yelled at the screen during bad ones (only at home, though), and just generally disliked what I’ve seen most of the time. But I’ll go ahead and recommend versions without too much commentary and let y’all decide what you want to see. There are a lot… so many.

I think the first place to start is with direct adaptations, then move on to a couple of my favorite looser adaptations (I tend to like those better). First up in the “straight” versions of the play is Orson Welles. It’s a movie from 1948, so totally a talkie (I skipped the silent versions), but… let’s just say, Olivier did a version of Hamlet about the same time, and I think that one is better. It’s just really unfortunate Welles agreed to can the idea of making everyone put on outrageous perfect Scottish accents. But! There is a way you can find that extended/Scottish version, and it’s actually better that way.


The next version I’m going to suggest is Roman Polanski’s version from 1971. It was directed in the aftermath of the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife, by the Manson family. It’s a tad lurid, and sometimes uneven, but it is chock full of real depression, bleakness, and pain, obviously a reflection of the director’s state of mind. It’s graphic and intense, has a weird soundtrack (on purpose), and goes a tad hallucinatory for a bit, and it’s a technically brilliant piece of directing. (This is not the one that made me fall asleep.)

(This is.) Usually, I’d recommend the good ol’ standby, the BBC Television Shakespeare, but this is the one where I fell asleep. It’s good, serviceable, and even… but, again, I fell asleep. It’s easy to acquire, though. And really allows a viewer to focus on the words rather than crazy set pieces. To be fair, I might’ve just been really tired when I started watching…

Of all the versions I’m going to recommend that aren’t set in restaurants or Japan, this one is my favorite. It’s not set in period Scotland, but isn’t on the moon, or anything. Patrick Stewart (yeah, Picard/Professor X, aka coolest guy ever) is Macbeth, and the film (which is based on an earlier staged version) makes some really cool comparisons between Macbeth and Stalin. It also won a Peabody.

The most recent adaptation is the one that came out recently with Michael Fassbender (yeah, Magneto!) as Macbeth. I’m… OK with it. I think I need to watch it some more before I can make a decision, but it’s just about as opposite from the BBC TV Shakespeare as can be. It’s not about the words… it’s about the set pieces. It’s about telling a beautiful story and makes a few emotional updates (burning Lady Macduff and her children at the stake, for example) that make the piece more evocative to the GoT generation, who’d gotten used to swords. The best part is Fassbender himself.

As for my favorite “on the moon” adaptations, I’ll begin with Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the play. It takes Macbeth and places it in feudal Japan, making use of traditional Noh elements and abandoning the narrative of the play as needed. Actually, I think it’s the fact that Kurosawa didn’t feel the need to remain devoted to Shakespeare that allowed the emotional resonance of the film to be so damn strong. Seriously… it’s so good. Not that Rotten Tomatoes should ever be used as a metric for a film’s worthiness, but it’s got a 98% Fresh rating over there. It’s probably my favorite adaptation of Macbeth ever.

Now… for my favorite cast of any adaptation, and my last suggestion. ShakespeaRe-Told takes the play and sets it in a Scottish restaurant. James McAvoy (yup, another Professor X) plays Joe Macbeth, a very unhappy sous chef whose work is constantly being passed off as the head chef, Duncan’s. So, when three magical binmen tell Macbeth he’ll own the restaurant, Macbeth and his wife (played by Keeley Hawes) decide to kill Duncan. But along comes Macduff (Richard Armitage) to mess shit up for them. I mean, you know the plot of the play. I just like McAvoy and Armitage fighting.

Well… that’s it for me today! We’ll be back tomorrow for some silly! AND THEN STRATFORD! We’ll review each play after seeing it, and our first Shakespeare is Wednesday, so no new posts until Thursday once next week rolls around.



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