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Review of Macbeth (Film 2018)

Review of Macbeth (Film) 2018. Dir. Kit Monkman

I saw this at a one-off showing on 13 March at the Liverpool Showcase Cinema. I was one of only seven people in the audience, which was a shame because the film had much to commend it.

Firstly it did live up to it's promise as 'an innovative rethinking of what it means to put Shakespeare on film' (a boast from its website here)

This production maintains its roots in the theatre - indeed the artifice of theatre is celebrated and played with throughout. We are given a sense that we are observing the actions and consequences of people from a supernatural vantage point.

The space the actors work within resembled Bruegel's 'Tower of Babel' but with one side cutaway. Actors have their scenes on different levels and the camera pans up or down through floors and walls as the story unfolds. CGI is used to enhance scenes and offer the viewer impossible angles and situations. In one of the 'rooms' a projectionist (who doubles up as the porter) is watching early black and white film versions of Macbeth. We are invited to observe as he observes the unfolding plight of the Macbeth's.

The space always remains strictly theatrical. When we are in Birnam Woods, no trees are to be seen - they are spoken of and we simply imagine them. Only when the soldiers hold branches for camoflage do they manifest within an actual environment.

Every scene is set up like an old masters painting, carefully lit and with each figure occupying a very particular space. The effect is lavish and lush, but all too often the imagery was misty and dark. I know this was deliberate, and the argument would be that it is a 'dark' play, however I found the monochrome a little relentless towards the end.

Macbeth was played adequately by Mark Rowley (a genuine Scot from Paisley). There are times when he could have been more convincing (e.g. when his advancement to Thane of Cawdor is confirmed) but on the whole he carries it well. Banquo is well played and the scenes between him and Macbeth are amongst the most credible.

By contrast, Lady Macbeth (played by Wunmi Mosaku) is less convincing and many of her lines felt like a read-through rather than something she was living. But to be fair, she had been robbed of many good lines which would have allowed her to put more meat on the bone. Indeed a many liberties were taken throughout the play; Gone was Lady Macbeth's 'Milk of human kindness speech,' gone was the Porter scene, the Hecate scene, the Witches opening 'When shall we three meet again.' And in this version, King Duncan's positive comments about Macbeth's castle are missing - and Macbeth's most famous speech 'tomorrow and tomorrow...' is relocated to the very end of the play just before he is killed. I can understand what they were trying to do, and there is a certain logic to placing it there - but for me they staged it wrong. Mid-fight with Macduff they simply stop fighting. This spoils the denoument and Macbeth (in close-up to the camera) expresses his futility (through 'Tomorrow and Tomorrow') while Macduff dilligently waits, as if at a bus stop, before killing him. I think they may have been going for a 'voice-over' style death much like the brilliant one in Carlito's Way.

Indeed this film references other films and other works of Art. In passing we see a portrait of Macbeth and his lady painted in the style of Van Eyck’s 'Marriage of Arolfini' and Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ which aptly features a night terror squating on the belly of a sleeping woman. There are cinematic references too. At one point the camera begins a long upwards pan which ends on two of the witches' daughters who are watching from the ‘Gods’ - this is so reminiscent of a similar scene in Citizen Kane where the camera pans up and up from an opera singer on stage before coming to a stop, rear of house, on two stage hands very high up. And as I said earlier the death of Macbeth might have referenced the final voiced-over scenes of Carlito’s Way.

The thing I took away most from this production was the relentless mental anguish of the piece. I found it more oppressive and claustrophobic, than previous productions. This certainly made the viewer feel as if they were sharing something of Macbeth and his Lady’s journey. Perhaps the unyielding monochrome did work a kind of magic after all?

An ambitious production with much to commend it, not least of all the exciting use of the stage space and the intelligent use of CGI. It was indeed as it promised - a very different cinematic experience.