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Macbeth (1979)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia

Main image of Macbeth (1979)
Thames for ITV, tx. 4/1/1979
146 mins, colour
DirectorPhilip Casson
Production CompanyThames Television
ProducerTrevor Nunn
Original playWilliam Shakespeare
MusicGuy Woolfenden

Cast: Ian McKellen (Macbeth); Judi Dench (Lady Macbeth); John Woodvine (Banquo); Griffith Jones (Duncan); Roger Rees (Malcolm); Bob Peck (Macduff)

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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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The critic Michael Billington described Shakespeare's Scottish play as:

basically a two-character play rather than a company piece. And, while it is Shakespeare's greatest dramatic poem, it has severe defects as a play; which is why I suspect it works best in studio spaces where it is easier to create a claustrophobic imaginative world.

He was undoubtedly thinking of Trevor Nunn's legendary 1976 production, originally staged at The Other Place theatre in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and stripped down to barest essentials, with a cast of twelve sitting on a 'magic circle' of crates around an almost empty stage. Banquo's ghost was dispensed with, though Ian McKellen's astonishing evocation of Macbeth's mental collapse made any physical manifestation redundant. Performed in the round and interval-free, it was a Macbeth of the mind, with Shakespeare's text to the fore and the audience trusted to use its collective imagination to conjure up horrors far more potent than anything stageable. In this, the production was so successful that Ian McKellen wryly recalled that a (presumably) genuine priest would often be seen in the front row "holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the evil they were raising."

When adapting the production for television, Nunn and Philip Casson recreated the theatrical claustrophobia by means of extreme close-ups, the actors performing against a background suggesting infinite darkness (there is just one aerial shot of the entire stage, at the very beginning). Sound effects are similarly sparse and equally effective - Macbeth's daggers clink with the uncontrollable trembling of his blood-drenched hands, and Lady Macbeth (Judi Dench) lets out an unearthly scream partway through her sleepwalking soliloquy, vividly conjuring impressions of Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream (1893) or Samuel Beckett's stream-of-babbling-consciousness play Not I (1972).

There were no weak links in the supporting cast, including the then relatively little-known Bob Peck, Roger Rees and John Woodvine, though the witches (Marie Kean, Judith Harte, Susan Drury) were especially memorable, suggesting, according to McKellen:

a psychic girl, her helping mother and a granny, who kept the book of spells. You'd smile if you met them at market, but once in the magic circle you'd jump out of your skin.

Widely and accurately regarded as one of the most riveting television productions of any Shakespeare play, it is hard to think of another Macbeth that comes as close to the original's black heart.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. I have done the deed (4:12)
2. Banquo's ghost (3:47)
3. Out damned spot! (3:58)
Macbeth (1970)
Macbeth (1983)
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Lambert, Verity (1935-2007)
McKellen, Ian (1939-)
Peck, Bob (1945-1999)
Macbeth On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television