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

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John Wyver John Wyver | 11:23 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    This looks like a must see event

  • Comment number 4.

    The US transfer was actually 'off-Broadway' to start with, in Brooklyn, at the BAM. Jolly thrilling it was too.

  • Comment number 5.

    Can anyone confirm that this will be available on the iPlayer shortly after broadcast on Sunday night?

  • Comment number 6.

    Apart from the Performances, I look forward to seeing these famous tunnels of Welbeck Abbey. I have made a brief study and long felt the eccentric Earl of Portland who commissioned them, and his reasons for doing so, would make a great drama. It will be a supreme irony if the current Earl is NOT among the Cast!

  • Comment number 7.

    I am very excited! Hamlet was a triumph, and if this production is as intense and disturbing, I will undergo another great Shakespeare experience.

  • Comment number 8.

    My comment above was primarily directed to a member of the BBC. I don't think I'll get to see it tonight and would like to know if it is available on the iPlayer.

  • Comment number 9.

    Mcbeth is arguably one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays that requires a good deal of original thinking. The present production of Mcbeth severely suffers from lack of originality and cloning expected Hollywood propaganda. My first problem with this production is the character of mcbeth: a bizarre mixture of Hamlet and Joseph Stalin and certainly not Shakepeare's Mcbeth. Lady Mcbeth's personality does not fare any better either; a histrionic unsettled woman of no great conviction.
    The second issue is the choice of the setting: the so called un-named central European country, the big Stalin like portrays, the soldiers customs, the music all suggest the setting was post-revolution Russia!
    Are the producers of this version of Mcbeth suggesting that Brits are incapable of treachery, murder, and betrayal? Did Mr Shakespeare think so too? What extra this cloning of Hollywood currency has brought to this production? Could winning American audience with little knowledge of the play be one reason?
    I am specially sorry for Mr Stewart who as always has provided a stunning performance albeit in a rather mediocre production heavily tarnished by Hollywood nonsense.

  • Comment number 10.

    Respectful of Shakespeare's text (only minor cuts and a couple of inverted scenes), swift-moving, chilling and very well acted, the film is totally riveting from beinning to end. The set is very impressive; the transposition into an East-European totalitarian environment works perfectly. An excellent production.

  • Comment number 11.

    just in from work to catch up with the play .. but alas not available on iplayer-- does this mean it's going to be repeated soon- I was really looking forward to it !

  • Comment number 12.

    This may become known as the "Tunnels Macbeth" for the powerful and chilling backdrop the Welbeck Abbey tunnels provided, adding an eerie menace all of their own.
    Patrick and Kate as the Macbeths were brilliantly clear and it's hard to imaging how they could have improved. I can't help feeling though that a serious conceptual error was made with the 'weird ( ward ) sisters'. Another tiny niggle was the mistake of 'doubling' of King Duncan and The Doctor, - or was there a ambitious subconcious intention to suggest the 'spirit' of the Duncan had returned - ala Banguo - to push her over the edge! Best moment for me was Patricks: " ...come blow ... wind rack! ... ( and whipping the Queens shroud back over her head, spitefully admonishing her cowardly suicide...) " ... at least we die with HARNESS on our back! Pure genius. Well done everyone!

  • Comment number 13.

    Absolutely superb! By far the best interpretation I have seen to date. Will this be released on dvd?

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi brainc and Histriocity, Macbeth is now in iPlayer and is available until 9.59pm on Sunday, 19 December.



    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 15.

    That's excellent news...may thanks Gary.

  • Comment number 16.

    "Let us know in the comments which references you spot" : The Godfather!
    This Macbeth scared the hell out of me!

  • Comment number 17.

    Many marvellous things in this production - it should be drenched in blood and terror and have sense of the occult. One thing in particular stood out for me and this was the portrayal of Macduff by Michael Feast; his extended silence (much needed in quite a lot of noise throughout) on receiving the news of the nurse of his family, was most wonderfully and movingly observed and brought a most moving sense of humanity, which is so easily lost in the play.

  • Comment number 18.

    Simply superb! Any plans for a BluRay release or repeat HD transmission? (my recording failed).

  • Comment number 19.

    Many thanks for all your comments. There will definitely be a DVD release in the new year but the plans for it are only now being finalised.

  • Comment number 20.

    Excellent production. Great performances, and the staging at Welbeck was a beautiful visual experience. The three nurses stood out, though the empty/occupied chair scene was odd, and it was disappointing to have Lady Macduff's last lines cut.

    Re above - I hope there will be a blu-ray release and not just a DVD - that would be such a disappointment.

  • Comment number 21.

    Sadly I missed the first 20 minutes, but what I saw was wonderful. Mesmerising. Just one thing niggled me. I hate cuts in Shakespeare and the last words of Lady McDuff, and the brief murder scene of McDuff's children, were cut. Was this to do with something like the "9 o'clock watershed"?

  • Comment number 22.

    And one other thing. At the end, the credits rolled at such a speed, it was impossible to catch the name of the cast. Why does it have to be like this?

  • Comment number 23.

    I thought that it was powerful and gripping.

  • Comment number 24.

    I am a 17 year old English/theatre studies student and I absolutely loved this production, it was superb.
    The concept in general was amazing, I loved the witches! Unlike Hamlet last boxing day this was certainly not the theatre production filmed-> its cinematography was awesome.
    One small criticism was the war scenes were not that well done, but this I imagine is because of budget.

  • Comment number 25.

    It's great to read the comments of people who saw the film, even if they were disappointed by aspects of it.

    @butterfly: Although you don't actually see the murder of the Macduff children, it's very clear that they have been brutally murdered, and by implying rather than showing this, I think the director Rupert Goold felt that the impact would be greater. Of course we were aware throughout making it that the film would be shown on television, but we didn't take any specific decisions about what was shown because of sensitivity about the watershed or other concerns.

    I agree with you about the credits, but the BBC requires all credit rollers to last no more than 30 seconds - they worry that viewers will switch across to another channel, I think. I have posted the full credits list here:

    @vivienmerchant: I completely agree with you about how good Michael Feast is when he hears of the death of his children. We shot that, very quickly, on the very first day of filming, and Micahel - like all the cast - was immensely impressive in being able to produce such a moving performance.

  • Comment number 26.

    I saw this at Chichester in it's original incarnation, and it was one of the most memorable evenings I've ever spent in a theatre. Chilling, gripping, and engrossing. I was worried that the film version would be an anti-climax, but I needn't have been concerned. This more than did justice to the original.

    Welbeck Abbey was a superb location, the dark warren of tunnels reflecting the darkness in Macbeth's soul. Patrick Stewart was as memorable as I recall in the theatre, and I well remember Kate Fleetwood's superb Lady Macbeth, particularly the sleepwalking scene- heart stopping on stage and equally so on film.

    My congratulations to all involved in this superb production. I'm delighted to hear that a DVD release is on the way- can we hope for some extra features?- interviews with the cast and creative team about making the transition from theatre to screen would be very worthwhile.

    Again, thank you for a truly memorable film, a worthy successor to the original staging.

  • Comment number 27.

    Loved this production. Know the play well, have played some of its parts. This production used the medium of T.V. - not a staged-in-a-theatre production filmed, panto style, and not a cinema style as such. The intensity was just great, all the close ups, the locked down spaces, the ever diminishing circles. The only open bits were the outside world blowing in (the army for example) which was about right. Didnt know it was eastern europe particularly, far too specific, didn't need to be. suggestive of a regime gone bad was enough, great use of other media e.g. the newsreel. Liked the symbolism, favourite bits included the preparation of the banquet - and the lift! Great use of the lift! I also enjoyed the witches speaking through bodies, it was quite hollywood but enjoyable in this. Thought the staging of the mcduff childrens murder was quite well done, this is quite a tricky scene to do well. less strong was the banquet scene itself although still pretty passable. I really thought this was a compelling version of Mcbeth, and can't wait for the DVD please. Would love to look at some of my favourite bits of it: I might consider not watching at all but listening - the sound track was actually very good, well thought out, I think it might be interesting to focus on some of the sound, it is tempting to be overwhelmed by the vision. Thanks to all: and congratulations on the Scottish one.

  • Comment number 28.

    Does anyone know when this will be out on DVD in region 2? It's available on region 1!


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