The best way to see any of Shakespeare’s play is, of course, in the theatre – even if that theatre is a park in PEI. But film makes the plays accessible to a wider audience, which is not a bad thing. Keep in mind that, in the first weekend of the release of Laurence Olivier’s film Richard III, more people saw that film than had EVER seen the play on stage in the 350 years before.
Macbeth has not been a favourite for the big screen, at least not compared to the multiple versions of Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream. Orson Welles produced, directed, and starred in his own production in 1948: the high point was the exciting and sudden advance of Birnam Wood – the low point was disastrous Scottish accents. Welles had also directed a remarkable all black cast in a Haitian “Voodoo” Macbeth with the Mercury Theatre in 1936 (some of which had been recovered and can be seen on YouTube). Roman Polanski directed his version soon after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family, and the result is a version even darker than Shakespeare’s dark play.
On the small screen, though, some remarkable theatrical performances have been captured for posterity. Ian McKellan and Judy Dench are still my favorite Macbeths, in a wonderfully pared down and psychological version directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company. More recently, and just out on DVD, is Patrick Stewart’s terrifying Stalin-like dictator: and for a man in his 70’s, Stewart is amazingly fit. (The Weird Sisters – the witches – in this performance, by the way, are nurses, a terrifying twist.)
But some of the best things to watch are adaptations of Macbeth: a mobster remake in Men of Respect, James MacAvoy’s Macbeth as ambitious chef in Shakespeare Retold, Sam Worthington’s drug-addled nightclub Macbeth, and Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Macbeth in Throne of Blood. And when you’re tired of all the blood and death, try the parody version from The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged. (Many of these are available at That’s Entertainment!)
Contributed by Shannon Murray, publicist for ACT’s 2012 production of Macbeth in Stratford PEI.