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Macbeth On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's 'Scottish Play'

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Thought to date from 1606 (just before Antony and Cleopatra) and presumed to have been written for a court performance before the Scottish-born King James I (who would have been well aware of the historical background), Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and one of the most immediately recognisable even to those who have never read or seen theplay. Compared with Hamlet or King Lear, it's a model of narrative economy, though it fully matches them for psychological complexity and surpasses anything else in Shakespeare (or any other writer) for the depth of its insight into the nature of evil. Many of its scenes have taken on an iconic life of their own: the three witches on the moor, the appearance of Banquo's ghost at the feast, Lady Macbeth's sleepwalk and the march of Birnam Wood towards Macbeth's castle at Dunsinane.

Given its longstanding popularity, throat-grabbing immediacy and relative brevity (even an uncut text should only run two and a half hours in performance), Macbeth is one of the most frequently filmed of all Shakespeare plays. The first British film was made in 1911 by the Co-operative Cinematograph Company. It no longer survives, but it seems likely that it ran along very similar lines to the same company's Richard III (also 1911), presenting a truncated version of the play sourced from Sir Frank Benson's stage production, with the original text appearing as intertitles.

Two Shakespeare anthology films featured scenes from Macbeth. Famous Scenes From Shakespeare (1945), directed by Henry Cass, showcased Duncan's murder and the sleepwalking scene, and starred Wilfrid Lawson (Macbeth), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Macbeth), Felix Aylmer (Doctor) and Catherine Lacey (Gentlewoman). The World's A Stage (1953, d. Charles Deane) drew on the Young Vic Theatre Players to perform similar excerpts.

The first feature-length British adaptation came in 1954 with Joe Macbeth, which is discussed later. The first 'straight' feature-length British version was made in 1960 by George Schaefer, and was originally intended for American television's Hallmark Television Playhouse, though it also got a limited theatrical release. Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson played the Macbeths, with Michael Hordern as Banquo and Ian Bannen as Macduff. The colour cinematography (by the great Freddie Young, who would shoot David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia two years later) tended to prettify the material, partly shot on location in Scotland, though it was well received at the time and won numerous Emmy awards for both the production and the lead actors.

In 1971, Macbeth was given the big-screen Panavision treatment in Roman Polanski's lavish production. This had been the subject of some controversy: eyebrows were raised over the funding being supplied by Playboy magazine, while there was much speculation about the links between events in the play (notably the murder of Macduff's family) and the real-life slaughter of Polanski's pregnant wife just two years earlier. But this tended to distract attention from the film's many qualities: co-scripted by Polanski and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, it was a ruthlessly focused, highly intelligent interpretation, with an unconventional approach to casting (Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as unusually young Macbeths). Graphically but never gratuitously violent, and with a memorable score by early music specialists the Third Ear Band, it remains the finest British cinema Macbeth to date.

The most recent, made in 1997 by Jeremy Freeston and starring Jason Connery and Helen Baxendale, was filmed on location in Scotland and occasionally shows flashes of genuine inspiration (in the dagger scene, a church cross casts a misleading shadow), but for the most part it fails to rise above the merely competent, and the obviously tiny budget (like the 1960 production, it was primarily intended for television) is a major drawback.

Television adaptations of the play run into double figures, and date almost from the dawn of the medium. On 25 March and 3 December 1937, the BBC broadcast selected scenes from the play (the second broadcast was sourced from an Old Vic production), while the first complete broadcast came on 20 February 1949 in a version staged by TV Shakespeare veteran George More O'Ferrall that starred Stephen Murray and Bernadette O'Farrell as the Macbeths, Esmond Knight as Banquo and Patrick MacNee as Malcolm. All were unrecorded live performances, and have consequently not survived.

The next three television productions (in 1960, 1965 and 1966) were all made for schools and broadcast during the day, usually in serial form. The first colour television broadcast of the full play came on 20 September 1970, in the BBC's high-profile Play of the Month slot. A conservative but often effective production, it starred Eric Porter and Janet Suzman as the Macbeths, with John Thaw as Banquo and John Woodvine as Macduff, and briskly directed by John Gorrie. Two months later, ITV broadcast its own colour version, a five-part serial aimed at schools that starred Michael Jayston and Barbara Leigh-Hunt.

The next television Macbeth was broadcast nearly a decade later, on 4 January 1979. Sourced from a 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production by Trevor Nunn that had already passed into theatrical legend, the television version was equally acclaimed, and is widely regarded to this day as one of the most wholly successful of all television Shakespeares. The original production was stripped down to its barest essentials, with a small cast playing in the round with virtually no scenery and minimal props (instead, brilliant use was made of sound: the clinking of Macbeth's daggers as his hands shake in fear, his wife's unearthly scream during her sleepwalk), and television director Philip Casson also made extensive use of extreme close-ups, with Macbeth (Ian McKellen) and Lady Macbeth (Judi Dench) emerging from the shadows to deliver close to career-best performances.

The McKellen/Dench Macbeth was broadcast on ITV halfway through the first series of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle. Perhaps wisely, its own Macbeth did not appear for some time (it was eventually shown on 17 October 1983), and took a very different approach, staging the play in a semi-stylised pre-medieval Scotland. Nicol Williamson was an unusually tortured Macbeth, with Jane Lapotaire a Lady as much in thrall to her own physical desire for her husband as to her personal ambition. Like Nunn and Casson before him, director Jack Gold made no attempt at visualising Macbeth's various hallucinations (Banquo's seat remains resolutely vacant during the ghost scene), suggesting that much of his torment was a product of his own imagination, an interpretation amplified by Williamson's feverish performance. An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was broadcast some time after the screening, and presented by the crime writer Julian Symons.

The BBC's next complete version of the play was its most imaginative to date, its title Macbeth on the Estate (tx. 5/4/1997) conveying documentary director Penny Woolcock's ambition: she staged the play on Birmingham's Ladywood estate, the characters turned into drug dealers, street gangs and criminals - even the witches became a trio of sinister children. Though the main roles were played by professionals (James Frain and Susan Vidler as the Macbeths, Andrew Tiernan as Banquo, Ray Winstone as Duncan), a large supporting cast was drawn from the area. The result garnered a mixed reception: although Woolcock's approach worked surprisingly well in many aspects (Tiernan and Winstone were particularly effective), the text was heavily cut to just 80 minutes, and the poetry suffered as a result.

New Year's Day 2001 saw Channel 4 broadcasting the second RSC-sourced television Macbeth, this time drawn from Gregory Doran's acclaimed late-1990s production with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as the Macbeths, supported by Joseph O'Conor (Duncan), Nigel Cooke (Macduff) and Ken Bones (Banquo).

All the above-mentioned productions remained more or less true to Shakespeare's original text, cuts notwithstanding. By contrast, Joe Macbeth (d. Ken Hughes, 1954) and the Macbeth in the BBC's ShakespeaRe-Told season (BBC, tx. 14/11/2005) used the play merely as inspiration for modern-dialogue scripts and contemporary settings. The first, as the title implies, restages the play as a New York gangster film, with Joe and Lily Macbeth (Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman) killing Duncan 'The Duke' (Grégoire Aslan) to inherit his turf. The presence of Sid James as 'Banky' (i.e. Banquo) suggests a comedy, and there are plenty of unintentional laughs, though director Hughes plays it completely straight. Despite a promising concept, it fails to catch fire in practice, and most of the entertainment ultimately comes from spotting the lifts from the original.

The ShakespeaRe-Told version, scripted by Peter Moffat, has a very promising first half and a genuinely original premise: the play is set in the high-pressure world of celebrity restaurants, with Macbeth (James McAvoy) the fiercely ambitious protégé of TV chef and restaurateur Duncan Docherty (Vincent Regan), while the 'witches' become three philosophical dustmen. Despite some effective blood-drenched dream sequences, Moffat's script ultimately fails to live up to its promise: the second prophecy, revolving around the phrase "pigs will fly", turns out to herald a feeble pun rather an expansion of an early scene in which Macbeth demonstrates the most efficient way of carving a pig's head.

There have been numerous documentaries about the play, with most high-profile stage and television productions at least being mentioned in an arts magazine programme (for instance, BBC2's Review ran an item on a Zulu version of the play in 1972). More intriguingly, Tony Robinson presented The Real Macbeth (Channel 4, 2001), an attempt to dig out the truth behind Shakespeare's multiple layers of legend. There have also been several broadcasts of Giuseppe Verdi's first Shakespeare-sourced opera Macbeth, two of them involving British productions.


1911, d. F.R.Benson
Famous Scenes from Shakespeare, 1945, d. Henry Cass
The World's A Stage, 1953, d. Charles Deane
Joe Macbeth, 1954, d. Ken Hughes
1960, d. George Schaefer
1971, d. Roman Polanski
1997, d. Jeremy Freeston

BBC, tx. 25/3/1937 (selected scenes)
BBC, tx. 3/12/1937 (scenes from Old Vic production)
BBC, tx. 20/2/1949, d. George More O'Ferrall
BBC, tx. 31/1/1958 (for schools)
ITV, tx. 3/1960 (for schools)
BBC, tx. 5/4/1965 (for schools)
BBC, tx. 11/10-8/11/1966 (4 pts, schools adaptation by Michael Simpson)
Play of the Month, BBC2, tx. 20/9/1970, d. John Gorrie
ITV tx. 4/11 - 2/12/1970 (5 pts, schools adaptation)
ITV tx 4/1/1979 (RSC production by Trevor Nunn), d. Philip Casson
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 17/10/1983, d. Jack Gold
Shakespeare Shorts, BBC2, tx. 17/5/1996
Performance: Macbeth on the Estate, BBC2, tx. 5/4/1997, d. Penny Woolcock
Middle English, tx. 15/1 - 12/2/1998 (5 pts), d. Michael Bogdanov
Channel 4, tx. 1/1/2001 (RSC production by Gregory Doran)
ShakespeaRe-Told, BBC1, tx. 14/11/2005 (modern-dialogue update by Peter Moffat)

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, BBC2, tx. 23/11/1992, d. Nikolai Serebriakov

Review, BBC2, tx. 7/4/72, excerpts from Zulu version
Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 5/11/1983 , p. Julian Symons
The Real Macbeth, Channel 4, tx. 1/1/2001, p. Tony Robinson

Verdi's Macbeth, BBC2, tx. 27/12/1972
Macbeth, BBC2, tx. 1977

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1970)

Macbeth (1970)

Play of the Month adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1979)

Macbeth (1979)

Riveting RSC-sourced production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1983)

Macbeth (1983)

BBC TV Shakespeare version with Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire

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