Slow and steady “Macbeth” wins the race

This past week PBS aired director Rupert Goold’s filmic imagining of Macbeth, part of the Great Performances series and the companion piece to the earlier Hamlet, both featuring Patrick Stewart. The production was nearly three hours long: a very pragmatic exposition, Stewart developed slowly a sane and considered Macbeth who sparked with madness rather than worked up to it as in a crescendo. I wonder if the successful stage production also took the near three-hour duration, as the film did not take advantage of the creative act that is adaptation (and abbreviation), which, on the other hand, meant the film really trusted audiences to stick with it despite the slow exposition.

The characterization of the weird sisters typically sets the tone for a production of Macbeth. In recent adaptations over the last few years we have seen bin men, traditional mystics, and now WWII-era nurses with semi-monastic habits. Their presence in the film–as food servers, nurses, in the morgue, or performing their supernatural obligations–is ubiquitous and threaded throughout nearly all the ensemble scenes. Their presence, like Macbeth’s madness and the influence of fate, is everywhere and at all times. This clever “threading” of the witches throughout the production threw into relief Macbeth as an individual, his skill as a leader as well as his ever-present conscience.

The magnification of Macbeth as a character somewhat overwhelmed the ensemble’s cohesion, which was one of the strongest qualities of the recent PBS Hamlet. This production was clearly one earmarked for Stewart–a directorial choice that cuts both ways. It provided Stewart with some much-deserved space for moments of virtuosity, but also meant we had to deal with his character for nearly the entire film, solid, which does get wearisome. I was confused initially with his casting: Stewart turns 70 this year, and while the final scenes displayed muscles that matched a worn professional soldier’s might, his delivery was that of an older, more patient, more considered man. This may also have been my conditioning to more youthful casting choices for a play that does not require really one or the other. Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) thankfully wrought a powerful performance that balanced his deliberateness with a sense of force, sensuality, and passion.

The most interesting choice on Goold’s part for the production was the continual emphasis on food, another visual element that worked its way into nearly every scene somehow (and when not, different kinds of appetites were definitely at the fore). This is true for two scenes in particular. First, Macbeth makes a sandwich while he gives his orders to the two murders as to how they shall murder MacDuff and his son, Fleance. At the end he shares the sandwich with the murders, presenting a dramatic contrast between the mundane (of making lunch) and the extraordinary (killing an entire family). During the Dinner Scene–positioned as the catharsis of the play for this rendering–the camera also focused on the fleshy food and red wine that the ghost of Banquo has to maneuver as he walks across the table towards Macbeth. The use of food, especially in terms of luxury and gluttony, highlights one of the central premises of the play: namely, the confusing or mistaking of the natural, ordinary, and predictable for the supernatural.

While a strong and thoughtful performance, a viewer has to be completely committed to watching it, at times more for Goold and Stewart’s execution rather than entertainment or pleasure. Knowing, this, the production is absolutely worth the watch, particularly for its unique version of Macbeth as a central character and the repositioning of traditional production emphases. One could even call this a radical Macbeth as a production opting for the thoughtful rather than the razzel-dazzle.

  • Watch this film online in its entirety at PBS’s Great Performances website.
  • This film is also available for purchase in its standard DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

UPDATE 12 OCTOBER 2010: You can now also watch the really interesting interview with Patrick Stewart that aired immediately after the production online as well (which I have included below).