John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: The Play Today

May 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Macbeth has been one of the most performed of Shakespeare plays, from its initial performance with Richard Burbage in the title role on. In the 20th century numerous acclaimed actors and directors have taken the play on. In 1936 Orson Welles directed a famous “Voodoo” Macbeth at a theater in Harlem, with the weird sisters as voodoo priestesses. Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh were much praised for their perfomances as the couple in 1955. Peter Hall directed Paul Scofield as Macbeth in 1967 (in a production that had people talking about the Macbeth curse because opening night had to be postponed when Scofield came down with shingles); this production emphasized the play’s Christian themes, as did Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production starring Nicol Williamson. Trevor Nunn did the play again in 1976, with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in a low budget, minimalist, and powerful production. Derek Jacobi played Macbeth as military man in Adrian Noble’s 1993 production. The New Globe Theatre presented Tim Carroll’s Macbeth in 2001, with the witches (two men and a woman) controversially dressed in tuxedos and oddly painted eye glasses, seeming more ready for a party than a murder. In 2007, Conall Morrison directed another controversial Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, which featured before the play an extended dumb show of the battle, where Macbeth and others committed war crimes (murdering babies, represented by dolls). This choice undercut the sensitivity Patrick O’Kane later brought to the title role. The most acclaimed recent version is no doubt Rupert Gool’s London and Broadway production starring Patrick Stewart. The play, as bleak as Beckett’s Godot or Endgame, employed Soviet era uniforms, video images of oppression and violence, and much blood.

Macbeth has been filmed many times, including several silent movie versions. Orson Welles directed a version in 1948, with himself as Macbeth and Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth very much in love at the beginning of the play, obviously sexually attracted to each other, embracing so it looks like they mean it. And Roman Polanski in 1971 tried to make the play contemporary by bringing nudity and much blood. (Interestingly, Macbeth was the first movie Polanski did after his wife, Sharon Tae, was brutally murdered by the Manson family.) And in 2006 Geoffrey Wright directed an updated and controversial Macbeth, set in the gangworld of Melbourne Australia, with most of the original text included, but with the actor’s speaking with contemporary Australian accents.

Macbeth has such a powerful hold on people’s imaginations, that there have also been notable “spin offs’ of it. In opera both Verdi and Shostakovitch adapted the play, in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of Mittsenk, respectively. There have been cinematic and dramatic adaptations as well. The 1955 Ken Hughes film Joe Macbeth sets its scene in the Chicago gangworld, with Joe Macbeth murdering his way to power. Barbara Garson’s 1966 anti-war play Macbird! saw Lyndon Johnson as Macbeth. Akiru Kurosawa set the play in 16th century Japan, during a time of civil wars, in Throne of Blood. And Billy Morrissette’s Scotland PA shows Macbeth and his lady as partners in bed, in crime, and in business. They kill their Duncan in order to steal his idea for a fast food hamburger chain, what turn out to be a wildly successful chain of “Macbeths” burgers and fries. And in 2007 C. J. Prouty directed Never Say Macbeth, an amusing movie about a young actor who faces unexpected consequences when he defies theatrical tradition and says “Macbeth” inside the theater. Clearly the play is as relevant today as when it was first performed for King James I.

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