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Macbeth (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Macbeth (1983)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 17/10/1983, 146 mins, colour
DirectorJack Gold
Production CompanyBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerGerry Scott
MusicCarl Davis

Cast: Nicol Williamson (Macbeth); Jane Lapotaire (Lady Macbeth); Ian Hogg (Banquo); Mark Dignam (Duncan); James Hazeldine (Malcolm); Tony Doyle (Macduff); James Bolam (Porter); Brenda Bruce, Eileen Way, Anne Dyson (Witches)

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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 relatively late in the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, Jack Gold's Macbeth takes a similar approach to his Merchant of Venice (BBC, 1980), in that it consists of an almost complete performance (cutting only the Hecate scenes and the English doctor's report to Malcolm, which few productions bother with) set in a highly stylised studio set inspired by the period and setting.

Gold consciously shunned the 'Elizabethan' look that had dominated the BBC Shakespeares up to then, preferring to evoke a pre-medieval impression of Scotland, with designer Gerry Scott paying particular attention to the giant backdrops depicting the skies (the weather being crucial to the mood of this particular play), and costume designer Michael Burdle devising a Viking-Celtic look appropriate to the time (though there were few concrete visual references to draw on).

Gold also decided to play down the supernatural elements, believing that these occurred primarily within Macbeth's fevered imagination. Accordingly, neither the famous dagger, Banquo's ghost or the line of kings in the witches' second prophecy are depicted on screen. This approach relies heavily on the skills of the actor playing Macbeth, but Gold was well served by Nicol Williamson's interpretation - even more than Ian McKellen in the great Trevor Nunn RSC production (filmed by ITV in 1979), he seems permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown - in Gold's words, "daring himself to see how far he will go".

Jane Lapotaire's Lady Macbeth deliberately avoids the conventional interpretation of her as an unredeemable fiend in human form, believing that the text supports a reading of her as being primarily ambitious for her husband rather than herself, coupled with a better understanding of his capabilities and limitations than he does. Her first scene is particularly interesting for the way that she deliberately emphasises the underlying eroticism of the great "unsex me here" speech, delivered while writhing on a bed: she's driven by her own sexuality rather than any external elements.

Williamson and Lapotaire are the main reasons for watching this production, though the supporting cast are never less than competent, and James Bolam contributes a particularly fine cameo as the Porter. If it's ultimately a good rather than great Macbeth, this is because the 1979 production set impossible standards for the deliberately conservative and conventional BBC Shakespeare cycle to measure up to. It is greatly to Gold's credit that he at least tries to meet it halfway.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Lady Macbeth's ambition (5:46)
2. The phantom dagger (3:40)
3. Remember the porter (2:30)
Macbeth (1970)
Macbeth (1979)
Bolam, James (1938-)
Davis, Carl (1936-)
Gold, Jack (1930-)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
Williamson, Nicol (1938-2011)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Macbeth On Screen