It's true that Macbeth is known as Shakespeare's darkest play, but I'm not certain it's a good thing Trevor Nunn and Philip Casson took that to heart in this version of the tragedy. There is more black and leather on display than in an instalment of The Matrix - a staging quirk particularly symptomatic of the time of this production, when directors, tired of lush scenery and Kensington gore, got into the habit of reducing their sets and props by so much that the baby tended to leave the window with the bath water.

Here, the set is black, the props are reduced to a few daggers, swords and sundry "symbollic" items and the clothing - with the exception of "good guys" Duncan, Banquo and Malcolm - is black, too. All this blackness is fine if you are in a theatre - after all, there are shades and textures to black, which you pick up when you watch something directly. On screen, however, the continual murk does nothing to aid what is, unfortunately, a somewhat ponderous retelling of Shakespeare's bloodiest play.

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For those not bothered by The Bard at school, the plot concerns a king's hero, Macbeth (Ian McKellen - hard to believe he was ever this young), who, thanks to an overwhelming sense of ambition, a brush with the supernatural and the sinister ministeries of his stop-at-nothing wife (Judi Dench), embarks on a path of blood and betrayal, which can only bring him tragedy.

The acting by the main players - McKellen, John Woodvine as Banquo and Bob Peck as Macduff - is engaging, with McKellen, in particular, providing a terrific interpretation of the language. The staging gets in the way, however, letting the actors down.

Dench is a passable Lady M, who dips rather too much into the shrieky for my taste. Meanwhile, the bit parts, particularly the witches, are mannered and overacted, becoming risible on occasion. Sadly, such unintentional humour fails to extend into the one comedic scene, involving the porter (Ian McDiarmid), which falls flat, largely due to a lack of props to help explain the somewhat obscure Elizabethan jokes.

Little has been added for a TV audience that wouldn't have been present in the original stage version, which begs the question, why bother? Lines are cut for no clear reason and yet still, even as Shakespeare's shortest play, it drags.

While McKellen is the man to choose for a perfect rendering of the poetry, if you are looking for an engagingly staged film version, I suggest you pick up Roman Polanski's instead.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2004
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Television version of the life and death of the man who would be king.
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Director: Philip Casson

Writer: William Shakespeare

Starring: Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, John Woodvine, Bob Peck, Ian McDiarmid, Roger Rees, Duncan Preston, Griffith Jones, Greg Hicks, Judith Harte, Marie Kean, Susan Dury

Year: 1978

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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