Welles, Kurosawa and Polanski: Three Takes On Macbeth
I was lucky enough to see one of the first performances of Rupert Goold’s acclaimed staging of Macbeth at Chichester in 2007, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, and was gripped by what I considered a very cinematic approach to theatre, re-imagining the play as a gory horror film set in the clinical hospitals and kitchens of Stalin’s Russia. Afterwards, buoyed with a new appreciation of the play, I was compelled to revisit the key film versions of Macbeth – three very different approaches, which individually display each director’s unique style.
Orson Welles showed a repeated interest in the play, firstly staging an all-black 1936 stage production set in Haiti. His film of Macbeth (1948) was shot on a low budget in just 23 days, which Welles later admitted was a self-imposed limitation to see if “it might encourage other film-maker’s to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed”. The sets were made from papier-mache and take on an almost surreal grandeur. The lighting is dark and murky, creating a sense of heightened paranoia within the sparse, simple setting. The tone is really that of Macbeth-noir, unsurprising when it came off the back of Welles’ noir classics The Stranger (1945) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947), in many ways a perfect fit – Lady Macbeth’s ice-cool murderess is perfect film noir, as is Macbeth himself, the corrupt and fatally-flawed lead. The film was no exception to Welles’ continued battles with studio executives, who felt that the strong Scottish accents of the cast wouldn’t help the film commercially. The entire soundtrack was re-dubbed, whilst Welles left Hollywood for Europe, although he did later return at the studio’s request to cut 20 minutes from the film in 1950 and add a narration. Like many of his works, the version now available on DVD is restored to Welles’ original vision.
Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (1957) recasts Macbeth as a Samurai epic at the time of the feudal wars in medieval Japan. Like Kurosawa’s other historical films of the 1950’s, Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), this adaptation immerses itself in the natural elements. From the opening scenes of mist shrouding the barren countryside and the fierce winds, to the rain and lightning engulfing the woods, the natural world combines to control proceedings. Characters ride on horseback in and out of the mist as if guided to their ultimate doom by the elements, making the normally evil lead roles appear somewhat more sympathetic. The wood and castle are even given the name Cobweb, suggesting the duplicitous effect of the natural world, and at one point Toshiro Mifune’s Taketori (the Macbeth figure) even fires an arrow up towards the treacherous lightning in the sky. The scene of Taketori encountering the unearthly Spirit in the woods, the old woman bathed in a translucent glow and gently spinning cotton, is surely one of the most beautiful sequences in movie history. Throne Of Blood is an exceptional, visceral film, which perfectly utilizes Kurosawa’s talent for impressive battle scenes. The film concludes not with a duel but with the magnificent image of countless darting arrows pinning the tragic Taketori to the wall of his fortress, having been turned on by his own men. This famous sequence was reportedly filmed using real arrows in order to give Mifune the desired look of terror, although this has been disputed.
Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth (1971) was his first feature since the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family, leading many to view the film as a violent cathartic exercise from the grieving director. It’s certainly the most unflinchingly violent adaptation of the play, even depicting the murder of Duncan in all it’s gory detail for the first time on film, rather than off-stage as written. The slaying of the MacDuff family in particular is almost too brutal to watch, especially given its obvious comparisons with the Tate murders. Certain scenes, such as the meeting with the witches and the apparition in the woods, dip the viewer into the terrifying world of the surreal, a dark hallmark of Polanski’s work as seen in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). As well as the horrific style, Polanski took controversial liberties with the play by casting 26-year old Francesca Annis as a much tamer Lady Macbeth and giving her a notorious nude soliloquy (but not so strange when it was revealed the film was being partly funded by Playboy magazine, although Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan maintained the scene was written before Hugh Hefner’s involvement). Jon Finch was also a comparatively young Macbeth at 29 years old. The film’s ending replaces Malcolm’s speech with a scene of Malcolm’s brother returning from exile with possible ambitions to reclaim the throne, suggesting that the evil in man is ever present – something Polanski had experienced all too graphically in the summer of 1969.