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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Macbeth
Macbeth
A&E Video // Unrated // October 26, 2004
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Robert Spuhler | posted January 12, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Royal Shakespeare Company is the gold standard when it comes to productions of the Bard's plays. It often stages lavish productions, with world-class designers and scenery, getting across the scope of the plays themselves.

But in 1978, director Trevor Nunn had a different idea. He staged a version of MacBeth in which his idea was to "photograph the text" – make the words the emphasis. All that would require is top-notch actors – no backdrop, very little costuming, no incredible lighting displays.

The 1976 production cost 250 British pounds to stage. He brought Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench aboard to play the king and Lady MacBeth, respectively. He painted a circle on the floor, put the actors in chairs around said circle and then, when the character is on stage, have the actor step into the circle and be in the world of MacBeth. Two years later, he had the production shot for television for posterity. And now, A&E Home Video has dipped into the vaults to bring DVD viewers this, one of the greatest productions of MacBeth in the play's long history.

Anyone who went through high school English class probably knows the plot: Three witches prophesize MacBeth's ascension to the throne. Pushed on by his wife, MacBeth kills everyone in his way to get there, but the guilt of his actions overcomes him. This is not the feel-good hit of the summer.

This type of production is how Shakespeare would have seen the play originally. The open-air theaters of England would not have huge backdrops, big lighting effects or anything else than the bare necessities, the actors and the words. To see a company trust a playwright so explicitly, giving both the script and the audience the benefit of the doubt that the productions will be interesting enough without the bells and whistles of elaborate costume and set design, is truly refreshing.

As for the acting … what needs to be said? It's Dench and McKellen – they both inhabit their roles so well that it's as if Shakespeare had written the parts specifically for them. They are not alone – Bob Peck is a fantastic MacDuff, while Ian McDiarmid also excels as the porter.

The DVD

Video:

Shot originally for television, MacBeth is presented in full-frame video. There has been precious little done to clean up the original print or video; the picture is soft throughout and the black looks much closer to a dark gray. But then, it's a 26-year-old British archival piece – not exactly state of the art materials.

Audio:

The Dolby 2.0 stereo track does all that it needs to do. Dialogue is mostly clear throughout, with only an occasional background sound conflicting.

Extras:

The A&E Home Video disc is not loaded with extras, but those that are here are incredibly interesting. A 33-minute featurette called The Scottish Play is nothing more than an interview with McKellen about the play and the production, and contains a lot of the philosophy behind staging such a stripped-down version ("It confirmed what a lot of us feel about Shakespeare – that he can be over designed."). For this, it would have been nice to get chapter stops within the featurette for easier access to favorite stories or insights.

There is also a four-minute introduction to the disc by McKellen, which is a great piece to watch right before plowing into the main feature. He sets the scene well and gives some interesting background. Additional features include a timeline of Shakespeare's plays and filmographies for Dench and McKellen.

One major opportunity is missed, though – there are no subtitles provided. Considering the classic text, it would have been nice to have the opportunity to follow along at home by that route, as well.

Final Thoughts:

This is, for my money, the best version of MacBeth available on DVD. For those interested in the language more than the scenery, it can't be beaten, especially with the fine performances of McKellen and Dench. This should be required viewing for those studying the Bard, and it is must-seek-out material for fans of his work.

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