Patrick Stewart: How we filmed 'Macbeth' in 18 days

Patrick Stewart first appeared in the Rupert Goold's production of Macbeth in 2007 at the Chichester Festival, before the play transferred to London’s Gielgud Theatre, then the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and finally Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in 2008. A new filmed version of the play, with the original director and cast, transmits on Sunday 12 December at 7.30pm on BBC Four.

How are you adjusting back to life in London?

I am adjusting myself to these temperatures. I just came from New York, where it’s in the low 50s. I am trying to bring some warmth to my house. Everything is beginning to heat up.

When did you first see this new filmed production?

I saw the film in New York around two months ago just before it premiered on PBS. They arranged a screening at the Paris Cinema. That was the first time I’d seen it with the neutral audience. This was the first time I was sitting with a group of strangers. It was new to them. It has been received terrifically well, which is very gratifying.

Do you find it easy to watch yourself?

It is very difficult. I don’t know any film actors who find it easy. I divide a lot of time between film, television and theatre. On Broadway, one of the things that draws me back to theatre when the show begins is that the actors are in charge of the quality of the performance which is what makes it unique each time. With the cinema, it is too late to change things.

There is a feeling of vulnerability, particularly with a role like Macbeth, which is well known. Every line that the character speaks is a famous line. You feel you will be judged in a way [that wouldn’t happen] if it were an original piece of work. On different levels one feels vulnerable. The great advantage for all of us. Every single role in the film is assumed by the same actor who played it in the original production in Chichester, apart from the children.

The film project began with a group of actors who had material at their fingertips who had been living inside it in different spaces. I think we were by then confident with the material because we were shooting very quickly. What you see there is 18 days of work which is very few days for a film which is around three hours long.

How quickly was the production pulled together?

Occasionally it was necessary to complete the day’s projected work and we had single takes. Sometimes Rupert Goold would check with the actors and director of photography after a single take. More complex moments we would have two or three. Three was about the maximum because we had to keep moving forward. I think it was Burt Lancaster who said ‘They pay me for waiting, I do the acting for nothing’. It gave an energy and impetus to the filming. It is a great testimony to the filmmakers that we got this in the can in 18 days.

Do you still get a thrill from the sometimes uncomfortable working conditions which surround making a film?

When we were filming the X-Men series there were at different times 12 to 14 leading actors all of us with luxurious trailers. Good company. Right next door to me was Ian McKellen, conversation was always interesting, even though on those films I spent far more time in trailer than on the set. I remember on the third movie frequently more than 30 takes.

The environment in every way was pleasant. If I look back to filming Star Trek: The Next Generation we were making 43 minute movies in seven days. We had to shoot seven to 10 episodes a day. Out of that comes this rhythm of work which never close to what you experience on the stage it keeps the day go quicker.

Do you think modern directors are distracted by the need to attract audiences?

I have been in many Shakespeare productions with contemporary settings. I have never been in one where I think it’s been done to make it more attractive to audiences. Rather, it is to give it contemporary resonance.

I feel our credentials have been delivered and accepted with the performances and production. We never had an empty seat in any of the theatres we played in. The production sold out in London in Brooklyn and on Broadway which is immensely gratifying for a play written over 400 years ago.

I have always seen myself in a line of actors who have all struggled in their own way with a role to give meaning and theatricality to it and never feel it has to be precision perfect. There’s much in the film in subtlety of performance that wasn’t there on stage. I have always been attracted to the fact that most stage performances live only in people’s memories.

Why did your recent role in a A Life the Theater [which ended its Broadway run five weeks early last month] end so quickly?

On Sunday at about five o’clock my association with A Life in the Theater ended for all time. It was one of those frustrating experiences where audiences who came had a great time but we were unlucky to have a very poor review from The New York Times and that is still a review that can do huge damage to a production. We had many reviews that were really positive but a poor review in The New York Times is harmful. Coupled with the fact that Broadway seems to be going through an extraordinarily difficult time right now. We are being followed immediately by two or three other [productions]. I have heard different numbers but I’ve been told between eight and a dozen Broadway shows are under the axe.

This is so frustrating for everyone. I discussed this with our producer and this is traditionally one of the best times of year on Broadway in the lead up to the holidays. It is very disappointing that so many shows aren’t doing well. I knew we wouldn’t make it beyond 2 January because that is the worst month in Broadway. To have this happening now. We are in a recession, people are anxious about jobs, pensions, health and theatre prices are high. It continues to shock me. We are so fortunate in London; we can see the best of British theatre. If you are going to the National Theatre at a very reasonable price. On Broadway you take three people to see a show can you pay $1,000 just for the theatre tickets alone.

Do you think London theatre is braving the recession better than New York?

There is a theatre going habit here. I talk to producers in London and they are looking for work to put on. You don’t hear anyone say, let’s retrench, people are looking for shows. That says a great deal about the quality of what is happening in London theatres. There is a real and lasting enthusiasm for performance. If the prices can be kept reasonable I see no reason why that can’t continue.

Do you agree with Sir Peter Hall’s recent damning of British arts cuts as “insane”. As a Labour donor do you back the Coalition’s policies?

I don’t think any recent Government can be smug about their relationship to the arts in England. Even the Labour Government underestimated the sheer economic benefits that derive from it. It’s never been fully appreciated or understood. Until it is, there will be tension. And presently of course with the Coalition’s cutbacks it’s going to be challenging if not life-threatening in some areas of live theatre. There is a failure to grasp how significant in terms of tourism and visitors live theatre in London can be.

Could there be a ‘talent gap’ in 10 years due to the current imminent underfunding of young directors and producers?

That applies across the whole range of education. I am chancellor of [Huddersfield] University. I am going to be meeting this month with my vice-chancellor and we could find ourselves with a generation handicapped by not having made available to them the education they wanted and deserve. In terms of arts education that will certainly apply. Music theatre, dance art and so on. Eighteen to 24 year olds are going to feel this acutely. I think this is something the Coalition has not grasped.

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