Compare and Contrast
Richard III / Macbeth
Michael Richardson

In which two ex-X-Men strap on their jackboots and go Shakespearean.

One of my favorite Onion articles of all time, “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended” contains a great point about the predilection directors have for putting their own spin on Shakespeare:

According to Hiles, everything in the production will be adapted to the unconventional setting. Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as Shylock's customary pinstripe suit, general's uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn by Jewish moneylenders of the Italian Renaissance.

"Audiences may be taken aback initially by the lack of Creole accents," Hiles said. "But I think if they pay close enough attention, they'll recognize that all the metaphors, similes, and puns remain firmly intact, maybe even more so, in the Elizabethan dialect."

It’s not a new point that casts putting on Shakespeare turn to surface level changes to put their own mark on plays that have been unchanged for 400 years. It’s a cliché. But there are a lot of good reasons for this. Small playhouses putting on Shakespeare can count on a good payday, putting on crowd favorites while still making a play for the “most memorable” version of Macbeth their audience has seen. Doing Shakespeare well or memorably is an opportunity to turn people with a casual interest in theater-buffs, so they’ll show up after you stop putting on Shakespeare and turn to Pinter or Brecht.

The trouble comes when the new setting becomes the story. And that’s the problem with most Shakespeare when it comes to film, because why bother making a new version if you can’t make it your own.

Romeo + Juliet still has a good reputation, mostly due to the two young performers who manage to do the material justice. But the movie surrounding Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio is so gleefully tasteless in Baz Luhrmann's signature style that the storyline itself disappears entirely. Luhrmann adds his little touches like Sabre-brand firearms, without ever considering that the story of two suicidal teenage lovers doesn’t necessarily translate to his modern world. Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing falls into a similar trap - the modern settings seem to fit well, until Leonato, previously a congenial party animal, wishes death upon his daughter for having sex. It’s a huge plot point that makes absolutely no sense in the setting, and it sucks the audience right out of the story. And because it doesn’t really add anything to the play (besides making it dirt cheap to film) it only acts as distraction.

But the knee-jerk reaction against reconsidering the setting of these plays isn’t necessary. Shakespeare has been exported around the world, performed consistently on almost every continent (and I bet a monologue or two found themselves down to Antarctica). With that kind of cultural penetration, keeping all of his characters as European nobles can obviously prevent people from relating fully to the characters’ sufferings and joys, even if the themes are universal. Kurosawa turned Shakespeare into a samurai epic for his countrymen, without losing a single bit of the originals’ tone. Julie Taymor can create a gleefully anachronistic mash-up in her Titus, masking some of that play’s deficiencies along the way. Done right, it can open up the world within a play and shine light where there isn't any before.

For an example of a play enhanced by a new setting, let’s look at two heralded actors taking on two great villains. Ian McKellen’s Richard III and Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth bathe themselves in the guise of totalitarianism, taking up the jackboot in place of the riding stirrup and the hammer and sickle instead of the sword. In doing so, more than just political subtext is brought to bear.

McKellen rips into Richard III with so much glee that he almost brings out the human within. Though this is classified a history play, Shakespeare’s Richard is so diabolical a character that he kills his own nephews on the way to the throne, seducing widows and having enemies executed with aplomb. He is perhaps the most purely evil creature put into the plays, and as much fun as it is to watch, the character can be deeply alienating. How the hell is this cackling hunchback acquiring the political power necessary to crown himself king? How could anybody respect this man enough to become allies, especially when that handsome McNulty is over in France bribing a couple armies.

Placing this version of the play is an alternate-world Fascist England gives some weight to these absurdities. It’s a not-so-subtle way of remind the audience that evil like this can really exist in the world, and we’ve seen them first-hand it figures like Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler. With a worse screenwriter, playing dress-up as Nazis would be crass. But here it’s used as a legitimate echo of history. Going beyond mere costumery McKellen plays his Richard as a charismatic orator. The opening speech (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) is cleverly split into a rousing speech to his compatriots, and then quickly cuts to a bathroom where he rages to himself. The aesthetic obsession of Fascism here is directly undercut in this first scene - Richard’s outward appearance covers up for his seething humanity when he’s alone.

The fact that Richard is so eager to turn to us and reveal his own penchant for evil is almost a relief in this context. The most terrifying thing about evil in this world is that those who practice it inevitably feel they are in the right. Shakespeare doesn’t give his antagonist even that to hide behind. It’s almost a comfort to believe that these evil men are aware of their own villainy, the same way it’s a comfort to think that Hitler was a lone evil man who took an entire nation down a slope towards moral destruction. That narrative isn’t remotely true, and neither is Richard’s confessions of villainy. He may “play the villain,” but for him it is only play. His desperation at the end is not a realization that all evil must suffer, but a rabid dedication to his own vindication.

More intriguingly, the thematic costumery goes beyond Richard’s character. His hired assassins are practically skinheads. His army has the better uniforms and his portraits line the halls. All this dress up allows us to actually see the spread of evil throughout the court. Richard is a corrupting force, like those maps of Europe that old documentaries smear with red to represent conquering Nazism. Rather than a story about the evil of one man, this new setting forces the viewer to think about how one evil man (or evil idea, evil trend or evil historical inevitability) can corrupt all that lies around them.

Masterpiece Theatre’s Macbeth, filmed in 2010, features a great deal of the same iconography, and uses it even more effectively. Here the touchstone is Soviet militarism. Macbeth is a Soviet general, being promoted after a great victory. His fellow lords are generals, his king is a commissar. It is within the first few minutes that the comradeship of Soviet militarism is reflecting upon the play’s themes of double- and triple-loyalties, where outward trust gives way to inner suspicious and accusations.

This film started as a staged production, and it keeps a great deal of the austere scenery required by the stage. But rather than a hindrance to the story, the background manages to highlight and warp the content brilliantly. Here the entire play is set in a sprawling bunker. Every room is a dull grey, the walls water stained and tinged with dirt. There’s a corruption in the walls themselves, like an abandoned and ill-kept morgue. If Macbeth’s story is about a man trying to live up to his own expectations of grandeur (after all, his sons will be king), than this place is a visual counterpoint to it. Here, everything is confined, literally underground. There is a filth that cannot be scrubbed out, and it’s not just the blood on the murderer’s hands.

Even the otherworldly, magical elements of the play work well in this setting. Confined underground, the witches play like a hallucination, brought on by some kind of cabin fever. It’s hard to say whether they’re literally there or just another part of the walls, a made-up omen in Macbeth’s war weary mind. Patrick Stewart plays his general as a two-faced bluff, a man who can play the military part with his friends but physically collapses into doubts by himself or with these otherworldly creatures. The empty rooms reflect his own empty soul, willing to be filled with whatever poison he can get his mind around.

Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth is the most intriguing part of this production, but not necessarily for the same reasons that Lady Macbeth always draws our attention. First of all, Kate Fleetwood has a face carved from glass. She has such a striking, otherworldly look that I was honestly surprised to see how extensive her IMDB page is - I wouldn't think anybody could forget her. Her Lady Macbeth is draped in the same grays and blues as the rest of the military men, yet she is not of the world we are experiencing. She is a martial spirit, sharp-featured and sharp tongued, but no general. In fact, she could be read here to not be a separate person, but as a manifestation of Macbeth’s own ambitions. His own doubts are overpowered by this spirit who seemingly has no place down in this bunker.

There’s an old joke about certain reading of Shakespeare - “A (blank) reading of Shakespeare tells us more about (blank) than Shakespeare” (the blank here is whatever school of thought the joke teller wants to blithely dismiss - I didn't say it was a good joke). So do these totalitarian dictators in iambic pentameter actually teach us anything about the plays they’re in, or about totalitarianism itself? I doubt that. As I suggested above, pulling the setting of these plays and replacing them with something else can do grievous harm, and can do little to help. But the little questions these versions focus on - Where does Richard’s evil come from? What is Lady Macbeth’s true relationship to her husband? - crystallizes small snippets of shifting meaning in these poured-over works. And so these unsubtle versions end up doing the best thing possible - underlining those little facets of the play that get lost in traditional telling, and bringing them to the forefront to be examined. It’s a matter of, as that fictional director said up top, assuring that ”all the metaphors, similes, and puns remain firmly intact,” and possibly elevated. That’s the goal of almost every director of the Bard, and it’s no small feat.

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