June 17, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (GSP Studios) – private pre-release screening @ The Courthouse Hotel, London

Macbeth is a play that has a strong association in the imaginary with its implied landscapes. The images of the heaths, mountains, caves and woods of Scotland, first captured in engravings of scenes from the play in the eighteenth century, and culminating in films such as those of Roman Polanski (1971) and Justin Kurzel (2015), situate the action of this taut tragedy against an unforgiving, often barren, and most importantly wild environment. It can be somewhat surprising, however, to remember that the play, beyond the ‘heath’ where the witches plan to meet Macbeth and the all-important Birnam Wood, makes very few references to landscape. As a play written for the early modern stage, what environments are necessary are conjured locally by words and by implication, the world of the play as shifting and effervescent as the witches who disappear into thin air, as opposed to the fixity of the mountains of Skye captured so beautifully by Kurzel.

In Kit Monkman’s extraordinarily bold new film of Macbeth (which I saw for the first time along with much of the film’s cast, at only its second ever screening), the Scottish landscape disappears entirely. The innovation, and one that will be much talked about, is to film the text entirely against green screen, with a rich and complex environment being filled in in post-production. It’s a bold strategy in a cinematic climate that still favours a version of naturalism in its mise-en-scene, and a gambit that pays rich dividends.

The world of this film is a dim, labyrinthine doll’s house through which Monkman’s camera travels fluidly. Each ‘room’ (and given my generation, it was hard not to think of the kid’s TV show Knightmare from the early nineties) connects to the others around, above and below it, and the rooms at the edges of the frame are often also fully populated. As one of the actors at the preview screening commented, it is reminiscent of the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk; only the uncanny architecture of the whole (spherical in shape) is accompanied by a slippage in time. Frequently the camera leaves a room as a scene concludes, and as it passes through walls into other rooms it captures the sequel to those actions: the crimes that have just been ordered by Macbeth; the preparation for a murder; the revellers preparing a banquet. The close proximity of all the rooms creates a dreamlike claustrophobia that places cause and consequence in uncomfortably direct relation to one another. In the bowels of this sphere, in a huge open space with stone arches evoking a crypt, the witches move in a chorus of ten or more, and as the camera pans up back to the castle chambers it is hard to forget the supernatural lurking in the same building.

The chief advantages of the green screen are twofold. Firstly, the world of the play becomes subjectively produced, its inhabitants not imprisoned by their surroundings but creating them. The environments are deliberately only half-realised, with white outlines suggesting schematics or grid lines that the more fully rendered areas are often slightly out of kilter with. When characters move between levels, an outline of a spiral staircase implies an infernal and eternal descent into blackness, while the transparent outlines of the flagged walls of Macbeth’s castle simultaneously make the fort vulnerable and yet eerily disconnected from any external world – and as the film’s closing shot reveals (without spoilers), this takes place in a more ‘independent’ ‘Scotland’ than most. The closed-ness and relative arbitrariness of the setting ramps up the interpersonal stakes by orienting the world around its actors and showing only what is necessary; yet the surrounding darkness places pressure on those trapped within.

The second advantage is that the disconnection from literal setting places emphasis on the actors. In fact, this is perhaps the single most theatrical cinematic film I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean that it evokes a theatre – quite the contrary in fact, as the roving camera and uncanny architecture of this world are distinctly cinematic. But it is played and cast on theatrical lines. Casting is both colour-blind and occasionally gender-switched (Ross, for example, is split into a male and a female role), costume is mixed-period, and the company is an ensemble, their lives playing out in apparent synchronous time regardless of where the camera seems to be focusing. When the camera pulls out to reveal sections of the dolls-house view of the environment, several rooms can be seen simultaneously, situating the leads among a castle world of competing allegiances. At times this has quite extraordinary power – rather than focus directly on it, for instance, Lady Macduff (Kelly Burke) is brutally murdered in a corner of the screen, the offhand order of an execution depicted in a way that emphasises the offhand and even marginal nature of the act, implying the extent of barely seen horrors occasioned by Macbeth’s reign in a way that evokes, for me, Son of Saul. The ensemble are constantly at work, and are often seen as a large rabble of drinking, fornicating  revellers, spending their time in a pub-like setting and largely keeping their heads down, living their lives away from the regime changes overhead – at least until they leap up to take Malcolm’s side in the final push (the always-wonderful Dean Nolan among them, a disappointingly silent presence in the film but foregrounded as a threatening leader when he strips to take up arms).

As part of the theatrical ethos of the ensemble, the cast concentrate on playing to one another, with some powerful and surprisingly fresh performances emerging from actors liberated to concentrate on the interpersonal stakes of each scene. One of the standouts here is Al Weaver as Banquo, who begins almost as comic relief. His bathetic put-downs of the witches (who, appearing as they do in a crowd, imply the itinerant and silent masses of victims uprooted by the war of which we see violent vignettes in the opening sequence) are laugh-out-loud funny, and his easy camaraderie with Mark Rowley’s Macbeth is simple and genuine. The two men are close throughout. Banquo is rarely out of the company of a woman in the early scenes, too distracted by her in the pub to notice the stillness of his comrade as he muses on the witches, and the next morning Macbeth has to pull him away from his hook-up in order to get him ready for their audience with Duncan (played young and somewhat creepily by David Bark-Jones). The emphasis placed on their closeness in the early scenes is paid off with an extremely tense scene as Macbeth asks to speak with Banquo about the witches, and Banquo hesitates for too long a time before emphasising that he will only do so as long as he loses no honour by it. The wedge driven between them renders Banquo serious, and in his tender care of Fleance the laughter stops, his new seriousness charting a fully realised arc for the character.

At the heart of the film are Rowley’s Macbeth and Akiya Henry’s Lady Macbeth. Both are regularly framed in extreme close-ups, their ambition and later fear flickering across their faces; but while they appear a great deal in isolation, they work best as a pairing. When Macbeth returns home they immediately fall into one another’s arms, and as Lady Macbeth’s ‘Great Glamis, worth Cawdor/ Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter’ is heard over the soundtrack, the scene shows a montage of them falling into bed, making love and lying intertwined after. The overlapping of sex and ambition plays beautifully. Lady Macbeth is in utter control throughout, her steadfast commitment forming an emotional anchor for Macbeth while he vacillates and worries. In a lovely reading of ‘Full of scorpions is my mind’, Macbeth breaks down while sitting on a chair in their bedroom, to Lady Macbeth’s horror. Later, the roles are reversed, and she is seen rocking on the bed chanting her sleepwalking refrains over and over, a prelude to her actual sleepwalking later and to her dramatic plunge through the central abyss of the castle to her death. When Malcolm and his company arrive at the castle, they have to pass by her shattered body, her presence extended far beyond the death of the character.

The film makes a great deal of its formally blocked sequences, that blocking being key to the creation of the virtual environment that forms its backdrop. Duncan, at the start of the film, is arranged on a dais surrounded by his key lords and retainers; the arrangement (and the costume, with bare arms and a long cloak capped with black feathers) is adopted by Macbeth on his accession but quickly dropped in favour of more dynamic – and more unsettled – groupings. The banquet scene sees a small group of people clustered tightly around a small table, and the ghost is not seen, with Macbeth addressing a fixed point just behind the camera, placing all the attention on the extremity of Macbeth’s reaction. Macbeth himself moves increasingly to the battlements at the top of the castle, the virtual sky offering a balmy, bleak backdrop to his isolated musings, which works particularly well for his cold reception of the news of Lady Macbeth’s death; a piece of jewellery given prominent screentime throughout the film is handed to him, which he drops to the floor after a long pause.

A more leftfield, and more deliberately abstract, decision is the framing device featuring David Bradley (the one who played the lead in Kes) as the Porter. This Porter has no bantering jokes, but sits in his little hut in the castle watching the comings and goings with a sad silence. At the start of the film he is delivered a film reel containing Mario Caserini’s 1909 silent film of Macbeth, which plays throughout as an inset performance. The connection of the play’s filmic history across more than a century (owing undoubtedly to the influence of Judith Buchanan, Shakespearean, silent film scholar and co-credited, alongside Kit Monkman and Tom Mattinson, with the screen adaptation) is a pleasingly meta nod that sets up the uncanny, dreamlike and self-referential mood of the film, a mood that is returned to at the end as Macbeth, in the middle of his battle with Charles Mnene’s Macduff, suddenly breaks away and stands to the side, ruminating on ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ into the camera, until Macduff turns up behind him with a swinging sword. In a more traditional film this would be, I think, a deeply frustrating ending given the lack of explicit diegetic rationale for Macbeth breaking off at the point of victory; within the context of the framing device though, one might read this as Macbeth accepting his role within a narrative that has already been told (by an idiot, no less) many times before.

The virtual environments and stagey setting only occasionally work against the film’s favour, most notably during the curiously static discovery of Duncan’s body, with actors spread across long distances and most of the sequence playing out either in detached long shots or too-close focuses on Macbeth and Macduff. But such moments are rare, as the roving camera brings dynamism to the vignettes and silently told stories happening throughout the castle. The atrocities that haunt the play are both visible and passed over, but the camera connects each of these isolated people and stories to one another, the whole population suffering from the imbalances Macbeth introduces. The population is bolstered by CGI, particularly in the climactic Birnam wood sequence when Macbeth is framed alone in juxtaposition with a seemingly infinite number of approaching soldiers. This allows Macbeth some final heroism as he takes on and slaughters a large group of assailants all at once while waiting for Macduff, but also offers some sense of the imbalance that has torn the formerly convivial castle apart.

There’s much more to say about this film, and doubtless I will in due course. It has yet to secure distribution, but this is a take on Macbeth which I suspect will have immediate popular and scholarly impact. In utilising the unique technologies of the screen, it has paradoxically managed to create a thoroughly theatrical and collaborative version of the play, that dissociates the play from anachronistic notions of history and landscape, instead creating a fluid, Escher-like world that responds to the nuanced performances at its heart. It’s a bleak and often brutal take on Macbeth, and unlike anything else I’ve seen on screen; I only hope as many people as possible get to see it.

Posted in Film review