Macbeth Review

The Globe’s nerve-shattering 2013 production of Macbeth comes to DVD.

The themes and the main focus of Macbeth are, you would think, fairly easy to determine. Written around the time of James I (it’s believed to have been first performed in 1606), Macbeth has a very different tone from Shakespeare’s Tudor History Plays and their cautionary messages for the reign of Elizabeth I. The fact that it is a Scottish play shouldn’t be discounted though, nor should the idea that there could be a warning about letting a Catholic wife have too much influence in the current climate, but primarily, Macbeth must be a study in the perils of ambition. It’s one of the darkest and brutal accounts of the abuses of power, not only in how the consequences are felt by those overrun by the actions of a megalomaniac, but in how the constant grasping and the desire to maintain power also takes its eventual toll on the incumbent.

I was a bit concerned then by the quote from Time Out on the DVD cover that calls the Globe’s 2013 production of Macbethone of the warmest productions of Macbeth you’ll ever see“. Warmth is not a quality you would ever associate with Macbeth, or expect to be thought of as a recommendation for a production of one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. I’m still not sure where the critic finds warmth in this production, unless it came across quite differently in the live theatre, because rest assured – or rest ill at ease – this is a very bleak, dark and unsettling account of the Scottish play. Some things however work better than others in Eve Best’s directorial debut for the Globe in 2013.

The set design plays more of a part here than in most basic Globe productions, although the stage remains minimally dressed. The mud-spattered jagged wall of a fortress, its door a gaping maw, presents a suitably bleak environment for the work’s stark and chilling assessment that existence and all our efforts to understand it amount to “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing“. Ambition lies at the root of Macbeth’s tragedy, but depending on how you view the relationship between the former Thane of Glamis and his wife and their ambitions towards the crown, there can be some sympathy (if not quite warmth) for the horrible self-destructive force that their actions turn back upon them.

It’s not insignificant however that it’s the prophesies of the weird sisters in the all-important opening scenes of Macbeth that do much to determine that tone of what follows. Rather than being a supernatural element, the witches here are more of a representation of the invisible and uncontrollable force of consequence that is unleashed by war in the land. Can Macbeth really be blamed for what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophesy, or is it the fact that he attempts too much too soon (“vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other“) and takes his fate into his own hands that causes such horror and misery to be unleashed upon others?

The Globe’s depiction of the witches (here minus the Hecate scenes of questionable provenance) is one of the most successful aspects of this production, showing them not in the traditional form of old hags but as lithe voodoo witchdoctors. It emphasises that they are a force of nature, their familiar lines chanted and weaved into a drumbeat rhythm, binding Macbeth into their inescapable spell. It’s not original – back in 1936 Orson Welles notoriously set a ‘Voodoo Macbeth’ in Haiti – but it’s eerily effective here and sets the tone and character of the coming tragedy well.

This then turns out to be a truly ferocious Macbeth. Spurred on by his success in war and his unexpected elevation to Thane of Cawdor, this Macbeth’s ambition is not simply a ruthless hunger for power or a display of masculinity in warrior bravado, but one that is driven by naked fear. In no small part that fear is played upon by his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, but primarily, it’s an inner compulsion. Promoted too quickly, uncertain of the merit of his position that has only been achieved through the treasonous actions of the previous thane, the only path is forward and Macbeth falls over himself to get to that place of unassailable safety. Regicide is no small matter, but in Macbeth’s mind, it is the only option.

Eager to assume that position, and terrified of losing it, Macbeth’s mind descends rapidly into madness through fear and guilt (“O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!“). There’s no hopeful defiance here, just a thin surface of putting on face, seeking further reassurance from the witches of the inviolability of his position (“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus…“), while underneath, eaten by guilt, always fearing that the game is up. Prophesy has already spoken for Banquo’s line, and the weird sisters of consequence will take a path that no man has the power to master or alter.

As such, under Eve Best’s direction, this is not the familiar or classic murderous team of ambitious monsters that one often sees in Macbeth and his wife. It’s a study of pathology that makes the work all the more dreadfully compelling. It’s important to understand Macbeth’s state of mind, and Joseph Millson’s interpretation of Macbeth pushes the limits of the text towards those ends. There’s a little too much pausing and peculiarities introduced on his part and those of others towards finding a new way to phrase familiar lines. There’s also an awful lot of nerve-shattering roaring. Occasionally the continual ratcheting of tensions – aided with pounding drumming – provokes some unintended laughs from the audience in some of the darkest moments of madness, as in the scene of Banquo’s apparition. But, my goodness, any relief at all is welcome from the relentless sound and fury of this production.

Globe on Screen’s Macbeth is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer, and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

The Globe productions are of course all filmed in High Definition, and some of them have found their way in that format onto Blu-ray discs, but as with the releases of the 2012 productions of Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, the 2013 productions of The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are released on DVD only. The video quality for Macbeth is reasonably good for Standard Definition NTSC. The earlier scenes, enhanced by natural daylight in the open-roofed theatre, are relatively clear and detailed. As the evening draws in, the reddish tone of the lighting dominates and doesn’t allow quite as much detail and definition. On a regular screen this will be of little consequence and more than adequate, but viewed on a larger television or projected, the deficiencies will be more evident in detail, contrast and skin tones.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The soundtracks are probably even more vital than the quality of the video transfer, and thankfully the recording of the live performance is good. Due to the nature of the live recording and the use of microphones however, it can be a little bit booming and not greatly equalised. This makes it difficult to settle on an acceptable volume level that allows you to hear the dialogue without being deafened by the louder elements of drumming, music and high pitched roaring and yelling of the acting.

Optional white subtitles are available in English, French and German only. Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extra features on the disc, but there is an essay and an outline synopsis included in the booklet that comes with the DVD. In it, Michael Dobson proposes Macbeth being perhaps the most realistic view of a marriage in all of Shakespeare. That’s a view that will surprise many and he makes a good case for this argument in an interesting article, but it’s not really a view that is borne out in this particular production.

You can always count on the Globe Theatre to deliver a rivetting production of Shakespeare’s works, and all the usual crowd-engaging qualities are evident in their 2013 Macbeth. The stage direction, the tone and the focus all play well to present a coherent vision for the subject that has good performances and a few distinctive touches. The acting style can be more than a little shouty and the bleakness of the production does rather mercilessly put the audience through the mill this time, but this is as dark and devastating a production of Macbeth as you can expect to find.


Updated: Jul 23, 2014

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