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The good news is that the sets, costumes and lighting are close to the top of the BBC Shakespeare series. Simple, powerful and expressive. The witches are shown at the Callanish Standing Stones in the Western Isles, and the castle is distinctly Highlands. Wonderfully evocative.
The bad news is, everything else.
Macbeth has the shortest text of Shakespeare's tragedies. But not here. This is endless. Much of the line reading is slow and straight into the camera, presumably on the assumption that American schoolchildren need underlining. No thanks. In this series, only the "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" is delivered more slowly. And that one's unbearable.
Theatrical tragedy is defined as a man or woman with noble qualities who is brought down by an act of hubris. Nicol Williamson is unable to convey any positive qualities to the character of Macbeth even when mouthing noble sentiments, and gives us a psychotic thug who just deteriorates. Unlike Lear or Othello, he has no transfiguring flash of insight when facing death - in defiance of the text, this Macbeth appears to have learned nothing.
Williamson gave interviews at the time of his calamitous Hamlet saying he got no joy at all from performing Shakespeare. Indeed his Macbeth is glum, trapped and looking like he was being forced to take some very nasty medicine. He makes the verse sound as ugly as possible, and his rudimentary classical acting technique consists of opening his eyes very wide and counting up to 257 under his breath.
Jane Lapotaire's Lady Macbeth is a simpler matter. She oscillates between orgasm and tantrums, with occasional rest stops at wheedling. She is every bit as baroque as he. Things got so weird that by the time we got to Banquo's ghost at the banquet, I thought I was watching the Pod People - I fully expected their heads to pop off and little "Mars Attacks" heads to rise up out of their shoulders.
Ian Hogg is a sympathetic Banquo, but he's no warrior. Tony Doyle has a good, solid moment as Macduff when he gets the news of the murder of his wife and kids. But he is unable to sustain interest, and the rest of the cast is notably weak, ranging all the way down to a pitifully incompetent Donalbain. Just about any other BBC Shakespeare video has a more effective supporting cast than this.
The major value of the BBC Shakespeare series is in less familiar plays. "Much Ado About Nothing," "Cymbeline," "Twelfth Night," "Henry IV," "Troilus and Cressida," "Love's Labour's Lost," "Henry VIII," these are great, life-enhancing experiences and are worth seeking out.
It is a pity that so many people will never see these, only a middling "Julius Caesar," a weaker "Hamlet," an oddball "Lear," a clumsy "Romeo" and this outright disastrous "Macbeth."
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