A mature captain, corrupted by a young harridan: Macbeth on the BBC and PBS, directed by Rupert Goold.

Rupert Goold’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy was filmed for broadcast in Britain and America in 2009/10, based upon the successful stage production first seen at the Chicester Festival, England, in 2007. Subsequently it moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London and was seen on Broadway.

Goold is a young director who displays great finesse with the material he takes on. He managed to transfer the stage performance into a thoroughly realised filmed version. Included in this Macbeth were performances, imagery and aspects of mise-en-scene that were nuanced and revealing and enhanced the impact of the text within a modern setting. This is the best way to go about up-dating Shakespeare. As with Baz Luhrmann’s hugely successful and apt for its time Romeo + Juliet (1995), the ability to reinterpret and absorb the extended metaphors of the text into the action, tension and conflict on screen, demonstrates the director’s ability to appreciate both theatrical and cinematic potential.

 

‘Macbeth’ on screen at the hands of Goold sees Patrick Stewart’s performance set in a series of underground bunkers, passages, dank utility rooms, locker/shower rooms and a stainless steel and tiled kitchen. Goold answers questions on elements of the realisation of the piece: http://www.theatrevoice.com/listen_now/player/?audioID=513

The location shoot took place at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welbeck_Abbey#Tunnels

 

This stately home, of the Dukes of Portland, has a series of underground tunnels and chambers that seems to have served the production extremely well. The atmosphere is one of operatic oppressiveness and sneering, secretive conspiracy. There is both a claustrophobic quality to the film, suited to the Jacobean origins, as well as a grandeur corrupted by decay and discord. This latter quality gives the impression of a dictatorship in decline. And this is emphasised even more by some of the setpiece soliloquy scenes that are reminiscent of the 2004 film ‘Der Untergang’ (‘Downfall’) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Stewart’s Macbeth is played first as a cocky, defiant, cunning usurper and murderer, feeling as though he is blessed by the cursed, bearded witches, until he is eventually shown as a paranoid tyrant in decline. He talks to himself, abuses his servants and cohorts, distances himself from his wife as she spirals towards suicide. This downward trajectory reflects what we know of the last years, months, and days of dictators from recent history. They gradually buckle under the pressure of their own cruelty and find it impossible to maintain control of such disparate threads as jealous co-conspirators, deranged and guilt-ridden family members, and tormented and oppressed minions.

This seems to have been embraced by Goold as a remarkably apt template for a modern version of the play, but he also draws on further elements of cinema and admits to the inclusion of echoes of contemporary popular culture. The aesthetic of the coldness and clinical quality of a kitchen contrasted with opulence and corruption came from, he admits, his admiration for Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989). This disturbing film has suitable parallels with Macbeth. The proximity with butchery and slaughter that is found in a professional kitchen, the ruthless quality that is perceived when considering the slicing and dicing of meat carcasses, adds to the piquancy of the death dealing. Characters are just so much fodder for disposal in the Macbeths’ pursuit of power. At one point Macbeth says:

 

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Act 3, Scene 4)

This is one of the most powerful and telling puns in the play. The final syllables should be spoken as ‘gore’ – running them together. This image of the ‘tedium of gore’ is particularly descriptive of Macbeth’s situation. He must kill and kill again. He is the closest depiction we have of the cinematic and dramatic psychopath before the term was created.

 

How he arrived at this point, according to Goold, was partly down to the allure, the enthrallment of the ‘young harridan’ – Lady Macbeth. The element of popular culture that is plundered here is the resonance in the gossip mags, that were contemporary with the production, of the difficult marriage (and subsequent bitter divorce) of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. The age gap between Patrick Stewart and his co-star Kate Fleetwood (coincidentally Mrs. Rupert Goold) was equivalent, Goold admitted, to the dynamic between the former Beatle and his second wife, the self-styled ‘TV presenter, model, activist’. He also indicated that their relationship could be just as toxic. So, exploiting the benefit of the casting, with Fleetwood’s mesmerising portrayal of the ‘fiend-like queen’, and her youth contrasting with Stewart’s maturity, Goold was able to conjure a sexually charged, dangerous, murderous collision of their qualities in performance. The energetic, aspirational military man, Macbeth, willingly embarks on his doomed pathway with the urgency and provocation of his lust-filled, unstable wife. There is no more exciting situation in tragic drama, and watching the ambition, torment and murder unfold was riveting.

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About gabymalcolm

Visiting Research Fellow (Canterbury Christ Church University); Associate Editor (Books) PopMatters (www.popmatters.com); artist, writer, film-maker, independent scholar
This entry was posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

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