Macbeth with Sir Patrick Stewart: The Scottish play from stage to TV

Thursday 9 December 2010, 11:23

John Wyver John Wyver Producer

Huddled against the cold in a huge overcoat, I'm cowering by a wall with a vicious-looking Alsatian snapping at my heels.

That's one of my more vivid memories from the location shoot for director Rupert Goold's film of Macbeth with Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.

Fortunately my canine assailant was being expertly restrained as the camera captured my far from feigned fear. I'm the co-producer of Macbeth which is being broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday, 12 December. Sadly my starring moment ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sir Patrick Stewart and Macbeth, with blood on his hands

The shot was originally intended for the sequence we called, after the former East Germany's secret police, "the Stasi montage". Which suggests that our film of Macbeth is not exactly a conventional presentation of the Scottish play.

This is Shakespeare's bloody drama reimagined in the midst of a mid-20th Century war zone. The witches are deadly nurses and Banquo is assassinated by handgun and silencer.

Rupert Goold's Macbeth started at the Chichester Festival Theatre, transferred to the West End and then had a triumphant run on Broadway. The film came together after my production company Illuminations worked with Sir Patrick on the film for the BBC of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet with David Tennant.

As with Hamlet, shown on Boxing Day a year ago, we transplanted the stage production to a richly visual location and shot it across three weeks just like a feature film. Our setting was the eerie below ground world at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

This warren of tunnels, claustrophobic cells and a vast windowless ballroom was created in the mid-nineteenth century by the reclusive fifth Duke of Portland. His descendants still live in the main house, but they seemed content as Macduff's invading army fired off round after round of exceptionally loud blanks from their automatic weapons.

Although his production began life on the stage, Rupert Goold has crafted a fast-moving and highly cinematic version for the screen. Yet I believe it demonstrates a deep respect for Shakespeare's drama, and a full text (including the often-excised "England" scene) is played with very few cuts or additions.

Sir Patrick Stewart as Macbeth hugs Lady Macbeth, played by Kate Fleetwood.

But you may also recognise visual touches from contemporary movies like Downfall, the tale of Hitler's last days, and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Let us know in the comments which references you spot, and do please tell us whether you think our approach does justice to the play.

At the heart of the film are compelling performances from the immensely polished and practised stage cast.

Kate Fleetwood is a calculating and chilling Lady Macbeth who descends into a desperately moving madness.

Patrick Stewart is imperious as Macbeth: a man of "vaulting ambition" yet also hesitant, a deadly dictator of overweening confidence, but also a man tormented by guilt and regret.

John Wyver is the co-producer of Macbeth.

Macbeth is on BBC Four on Sunday, 12 December at 7.30pm.

Macbeth is available in iPlayer until 9.59pm on Sunday, 19 December.

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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