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Macbeth (1970)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Macbeth (1970)
For Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 20/9/1970, 130 mins, colour
DirectorJohn Gorrie
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorRosemary Hill
DesignerNatasha Kroll
MusicChristopher Whelen

Cast: Eric Porter (Macbeth); Janet Suzman (Lady Macbeth); John Thaw (Banquo); John Woodvine (Macduff); John Alderton (Malcolm); Michael Goodliffe (Duncan)

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After hearing a prophecy that he will be crowned King of Scotland, Macbeth, encouraged by his wife, attempts to make it come true - no matter what the cost.

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Broadcast as a BBC Play of the Month, this Macbeth is very typical of the 'realistic' approach to Shakespeare long favoured by producer Cedric Messina. For all the play's supernatural trappings, director John Gorrie and his cast play it absolutely straight (the witches even have wispy beards, in accordance with the text), and Natasha Kroll's charcoal-grey sets have a solid, lived-in feel, the wood and stone scarred with age. Most of the costumes are grey too, letting Macbeth's blood-red robes stand out in every shot, implicitly betraying his crime long after he has washed his hands.

A striking feature of this Macbeth is the evident age gap between the central couple. Eric Porter was eleven years older than Janet Suzman in real life, and their make-up exaggerates this difference: when she describes his face as being "like a book wherein men may read strange matters", her own alabaster skin has no such history. This has the effect of intensifying her evident hold over him: she's still young and attractive enough to have justified ambitions, not to mention a palpable erotic hold over him: many of their more intense conversations are conducted in a clinch. Presumably not insignificantly, it is only after her death that Macbeth loses the haunted look behind his eyes - the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech is uncommonly fiery and passionate, a far cry from the usual world-weary reflection.

A strong supporting cast includes John Thaw as Banquo, John Alderton as Malcolm and John Woodvine as Macduff: the latter dominates the final act, with his fury at hearing of the massacre of his family only assuaged when he not only produces Macbeth's severed head but gleefully impales it on his sword, like the victim of a medieval execution.

This is a relatively short Macbeth, thanks largely to the cast's rapid delivery and Gorrie's brisk direction. Though this has had the unfortunate side-effect of rushing some key scenes (Lady Macbeth's sleepwalk being a case in point), it leads to an impressive intensity in the final combat scenes with their almost cinematic cross-cutting - despite the retention of virtually all the text. If it ultimately lacks the visual flair of the Roman Polanski film (1971) or the overwhelming power of Trevor Nunn's RSC production (preserved by ITV in 1979), this Macbeth is nonetheless an ideal production for beginners - which may well have been Messina and Gorrie's intention.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The prophecy (2:47)
2. Night's black agents (4:10)
3. Macduff's secret (4:28)
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