The Weekend's TV: Macbeth, Sun, BBC4
Take Me Out, Sat, ITV1
A thrilling tale full of sound and fury
Monday 13 December 2010
Duncan was given the first word in Rupert Goold's television version of his own acclaimed production of Macbeth, not – as is more conventional – the witches.
We got martial music, archive footage of Katyusha rockets and T-34 tanks, a close up of a clutching hand and then "What bloody man is that?" as the king advanced down the corridor of a chaotic front-line clearing station towards the stretchered figure of the Sergeant, that helpfully garrulous casualty who brings us up to date with Macbeth's valour. And, if you grumbled at this point about Goold's peremptory excision of the supernatural in favour of applied historical concept, you probably weren't grumbling for long. As the lights in the corridor eerily dimmed one by one and the king and his retainers vanished, the medical sisters attending the wounded man revealed themselves as weird sisters too, one of them dispatching him with a lethal injection and another plunging a hand beneath his bandages to pull out his heart.
It was fair warning of what was to come – a violent, inventive, occasionally brutally invasive account of the play that had been comprehensively re-imagined for the screen. Goold and his cast won awards for the theatrical original, which travelled from Chichester to both the West End and Broadway. I don't think it's inconceivable that they might win an award for this version too, and if there was a Bafta category for Shakespeare Adaptation you could probably call the result now. There isn't such an award, of course, television Shakespeare not exactly being thick on the ground these days. But Goold's bloody Macbeth, vulgar in all the right ways (and a few of the wrong ones, it has to be said), showed exactly how to take advantage of a rare commission.
He had a terrific set in Welbeck Hall, a mothballed army training camp in a former country house, which supplied subterranean ballrooms, institutional kitchens and the kind of Lubyanka corridor that precisely suited his setting – a state collapsing in time of war into a Stalinist terror. But he used it thrillingly too, opening out his action with long perspectives while keeping a sense of the claustrophobic enclosure of the play. Barely a handful of scenes were played outdoors, and even Banquo's murder was enclosed, a secret-service execution carried out in rocking railway carriage by two trench-coated secret policemen. At the same time Goold used the camera to get in tight on his actors – so that soliloquies could be whispered in a furtive conspiracy of the self with the self – and on props that filled out his account of the play. When Lady Macbeth opens her dresser drawer we see – for just a second or two – a child's shoe that hints at an unhealed grief. And a tracking shot along a kitchen counter before the banquet offered a premonitory vista of dismemberment and violence, the cruelty before the feast.
The rapid cuts from scene to scene that television allows did occasionally cause problems too. At one moment Lady Macbeth (played with a pressure-cooker intensity by Kate Fleetwood) was invoking the night to "pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell/ That my keen knife see not the wound it makes". At the next she was revealed wiping down the kitchen tiles with a pair of black Marigolds on, a detail that suggested things had been a little tight in the Macbeth household. It wasn't the only miscalculation in the production. The decision to interrupt the banquet with a sudden unexplained game of musical chairs muddied the ghastly comedy of that scene, as etiquette struggles to contain eruptions of madness. But neither incongruity could really dull the force of Goold's version, or the strength of Patrick Stewart's performance as a man who wrenches his snagged conscience free, and then finds he has nothing to arrest his fall. As he contemplated the crime he was about to commit he stammered briefly before the words "deep damnation", as if he'd had a glimpse over the edge and his stomach had rolled with vertigo. When the end came Goold allowed himself another invention, squeezing a knife fight in between the two last words Macbeth speaks in the play. "And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold'," he shouted at Macduff, flailing and slashing at him before bringing him to his knees. And only then, with his opponent at his mercy, did he complete the line with the word "Enough", uttered in a tone of resignation and something like relief.
It was a word I used myself about five minutes into Take Me Out, a Saturday night dating show that takes a face-off you would expect to find in a Bangkok brothel – one male looking at 30 tartily dressed women – and reverses the power relationships. Essentially, they get to decide whether they fancy him, indicating whether they're still available or not with a light on the front of the lecterns they stand behind. Some of the lights go off the instant the prospective date appears, others flicker out after a series of short films reveal further details about him, with retirees and hopefuls being interrogated about their choices by Paddy McGuinness. Enough? Just in case you're still tempted to risk it, I might add that McGuinness introduces each round with lines such as "No likee, no lightee!" and "Let the Pinky see the Perky!", and that male contestants who succeed in extinguishing every light are escorted off-stage to a mass chorus of "All By Myself". More than enough, surely?
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