The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting
archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new
shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of
watching live theatre
Royal Shakespeare Company and YouTube Summer 2020
Widely regarded as the
finest production of Macbeth in a generation, Trevor Nunn's 1976
Royal Shakespeare Company staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench
retains all its power in this 1979 television version, which is well
deserving of rediscovery four decades later.
The original staging,
done in the round in a small space and with minimal props, drew much
of its power from the audience's closeness to the actors. So the TV
version's even greater intimacy – I haven't measured this but I
would guess that close to half of what you see are single faces in
extreme close-up – takes things even further in the same direction.
A special bonus to
looking back at this production from the present
is the reminder that that was a Golden Age for the RSC, with an
extraordinarily strong mid-level to its company. Supporting roles
here are played by John Woodvine, Bob Peck, Ian McDiarmid, Roger
Rees, Greg Hicks and Griffith Jones, with nobody noticing anything
particularly remarkable about all that talent in one room.
McKellen shows us a Macbeth who senses from the start that he's
getting into something that will be far more complicated than it
seems, and who faces each new challenge with a horror mixed with an
almost ironic resignation and with a determination to keep going that
takes on a terrible dignity and heroism.
Judi Dench clearly sees
the key to Lady Macbeth's tragedy is that she is exactly the opposite
– assuming from the start that it will all be quick and easy and
that she is stronger than he, she begins to crumble the minute things
get thorny and he shows that he really doesn't need to rely on her.
You may live a lifetime
without seeing a more soul-wrenching
Sleepwalking Scene than Dench's, but it does not come out of nowhere
as we have watched the character moving toward it all along.
stars draw us into their characters in ways that are fascinatingly
different but equally effective. McKellen frequently plays directly
to the camera, while Dench does not, so that we are lured into his
private scenes as co-conspirators while feeling uneasily voyeuristic
Bob Peck's Macduff is
the best I've ever seen. Almost
uniquely in my experience of this play director Nunn and actor Peck
see – and make us see – that the England Scene, in which Macduff
begs Malcolm to lead a rebellion against Macbeth, is not about
Malcolm's self-slanders but Macduff's desperation.
John Woodvine is a
thoughtful and suspicious Banquo, who sees more than he lets on, and
the play loses a significant anchor in reality when his character
Some very insightful
combining of minor characters and doubling
of roles turn Greg Hicks (Third Murderer, Seyton, others) into a dark
and foreboding presence, while Ian McDiarmid plays a string of more
benevolent roles as the production's Good Angel.
If there is a
criticism to make about the TV version it is that designer Mike Hall
carries stage designer John Napier's imagery a little too far. With
just about everyone dressed in black against black backgrounds, the
broadcast is almost monochromatic, and TV director Philip Casson has
almost every single scene begin with actors slowly emerging from
blackness and end with them receding back into it.
The best Macbeth of its era, this may well be the best Macbeth you will ever see.
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