Shakespeare and the Directors
November 12, 2002
Because I have a certain respect for Shakespeare, I
usually avoid productions of his plays. Too many directors falsify them by
trying to modernize them. I dont mind modern-dress performances;
I do mind modern-ideas performances, which turn the plays into parables
of fascism or feminism or existentialism current fads that are
totally alien to the playwright.
Such directors seem to
think theyre paying Shakespeare a compliment by showing his
relevance to our world. The truth is that they are too
unimaginative to enter into his world, where the feudal and the
supernatural co-exist naturally.
A happy exception is
Roman Polanskis 1971 movie version of Macbeth, for
my money by far the best Shakespeare film ever made. Instead of bringing
the story up to date, it plunges into the Middle Ages with relish and makes
even ancient superstitions come eerily alive.
From the first shot of
the Weird Sisters a trio of truly hideous crones you feel
evil in the air. Macbeth himself, played by Jon Finch, is a handsome young
warrior whose wife, played by Francesca Annis, has a delicate beauty
rarely brought to the role of Lady Macbeth. These arent the ruthless
middle-aged couple we usually see, but a pair of young people on the make.
When she upbraids him for his reluctance to kill the king, she weeps, hurt
that her husband isnt giving her the kingdom he promised her. You
feel her tears melting him.
But it isnt the
actors who make this film so satisfying; its the director. Polanski
is a master of atmosphere, and he was also advised by the great theater
critic Kenneth Tynan. It was an inspired collaboration; but unfortunately,
it cant be repeated. Tynan died years ago, and
Macbeth is probably the only Shakespeare play suited to
Polanskis talent for the macabre.
The murders are shown with uncompromising violence. While
remaining faithful to the Shakespearean text, the film has all the fright of
a first-rate horror movie, the kind that makes you say to yourself,
I dont know how much more of this I can take!
Banquo is slaughtered with a broadaxe, and when his gruesome ghost, its
face blanched and bloody, appears at Macbeths supper, you feel
youve seen a real ghost for the first time. No wonder Macbeth
erupts in hysterical terror. It might indeed appal the devil.
Even this awful
moment is surpassed by the slaughter of Macduffs family. As
Macbeths hired murderers invade the house, Macduffs young
son says, He has killed me, mother, and blood suddenly
dribbles like a small fountain from the wound in the back of his neck. In
this world, not even children are safe.
The film was
Polanskis first after the sensational 1969 murder of his pregnant
wife, the actress Sharon Tate, by the Manson gang. There was inevitably
speculation that his personal life had shaped his grim
Macbeth. Polanski denied this; hed already made two
memorable horror films, Repulsion and
Rosemarys Baby, and he didnt need lessons
from life in order to make another.
The film is shot in
beautiful color, with Scottish landscapes, castles, and fine period detail.
Yet even the most gorgeous scenes are ominous, pregnant with imminent
violence. In the battle scene near the beginning we see a soldier brutally
killed with a mace; soon afterward the treacherous Thane of Cawdor is
hanged, not by a rope but by a chain, which creaks heavily as his body
swings from side to side like a pendulum. Polanski has a gift for the small
surprises and sensations, visual and aural, that make a scene fresh.
Except for Orson
Welles, Max Reinhardt, and Franco Zefferelli, no other first-rate director
has ever tackled Shakespeare on the screen. This is both a pity and a
mystery. Elizabethan plays, with their rapid changes of scene, are well
suited to the cinema. Great scripts are hard to come by. The Shakespeare
plays have inspired wonderful operas; why not wonderful films?
(Im not forgetting Laurence Oliviers lovely Henry
directors, on the other hand, have been eager to film Shakespeare, and they
havent been shy about superimposing their harebrained conceptions
on the plays. Is Polanskis Macbeth destined to remain
a uniquely successful film adaptation of our greatest dramatist?