Talking Movies

October 4, 2015

Macbeth

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are Scotland’s most terrifying power couple in director Justin Kurzel’s impressively realised version of The Scottish Play.

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Civil War rages in Scotland. King Duncan (David Thewlis) is kept on the throne by the bloodthirsty valour of the Thane of Glamis, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender). But when three witches prophesy that Macbeth shall be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland hereafter fatal ambition seizes the mind of both his wife (Marion Cotillard) and he. Obstacles in his path are Duncan, and his son Malcolm (Jack Reynor); and obstacles to security as King are friend Banquo (Paddy Considine), and his son Fleance. And with a mind full of scorpions, morality and sanity soon go by the wayside for Macbeth…

Kurzel cuts the comic relief Porter scene. This is not that kind of Macbeth. This is a grimy, gory, brutal production of Shakespeare’s text. Kurzel’s film goes out of its way to make what Shakespeare had made difficult to watch (the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her household) almost unbearable. No Orson Welles castle for Macbeth here, home consists of simple wooden houses, tents, and combinations of both. Rain, mud, and blood are everywhere; men are scarred from battle, women are scarred from losing child after child. It’s a theatrical vision which becomes hallucinatory and cinematic by its fiery finale.

This was always going to be an interesting film, but the combination of Fassbender, Cotillard, and Kurzel is probably the finest screen Macbeth yet.

5/5

January 20, 2014

Macbeth

Being one of the Fundit sponsors of this production of the Scottish play at Smock Alley, this is an earnest attempt at a semi-unbiased review of Keith Thompson directing Macbeth.

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As I did stand my watch upon the hill I looked toward Birnam and anon methought the wood began to move

Thompson has directed and acted in several Shakespeare productions at UCD’s Astra Hall, and his hallmark brevity is at work here as Macbeth comes in at just under 100 minutes without an interval. The play opens with King Duncan (Finbarr Doyle) receiving news from a wounded soldier (Patrick Doyle) of Macbeth (Gerard Adlum) successfully suppressing a rebellion. His generous decision to reward Macbeth with the rebel’s title Thane of Cawdor backfires spectacularly, however, as Macbeth and Banquo (Conor Marren) have just been visited by three witches who prophesied receiving that title would be the first step towards Macbeth becoming King of Scotland. But it is not until Macbeth returns home, with the unexpected news that Duncan intends to stay with them, that the mischief really starts as ambitious Lady Macbeth (Jennifer Laverty) pushes him to murder Duncan and seize power…

There are no lulls until Malcolm and Macduff’s filler scene in this breathless production. Macbeth’s castle on the fateful night is a frenetically busy place, and Cait Corkery’s design cleverly utilises the Romanesque windows of the Boys School space by running stairs up to them to create a balcony, which Macbeth hides under at one point gripped by fear and guilt. The witches are druidic figures, appearing in hooded cloaks on three sides of the audience in the gangway above. And returning soldiers run down these gangways to gain entrance to the stage, injecting tremendous bursts of energy into Shakespeare’s tale of dark plotting. Eoghan Carrick’s lighting design emphasises the nocturnal aspect of the play, while his use of greens and blues in his night-time tints also subtly hints at the supernatural powers at work forcing Macbeth ever bloodily forward.

But a Thompsonian Shakespeare will always have naturalistic comedy, and here Katie McCann as an excitable Ross offers much background joviality, and also an unexpected personal note in her plea to Malcolm (Jamie Hallahan) that in his cause even the women of Scotland would fight against the tyrant. Meanwhile Patrick Doyle in a terrific performance in a portmanteau role at Chez Macbeth transforms the Porter’s speech into a series of ‘knock knock’ jokes told to various members of the audience, casually slits Banquo’s throat ending his indignation, serves drinks afterwards as Macbeth hastily dabs off Banquo’s blood from his cheek, smiles devilishly as he appears on the balcony to check the escape of Lady Macduff (Claire Jenkins) with the faux-innocent question ‘Where is your husband?’ and, as Seyton, stays by his murderous master till the bitter end of Birnam Wood.

Playing Shakespeare with a cast of nine, regardless of the cutting done, requires this sort of doubling; and everything works except for an unfortunately Lynchian moment when Macduff arrives to check on Duncan. Eschewing any crown for instead a chair and a ring,(which Macbeth continually twists on his finger because of his guilty conscience) it’s all too easy to forget that Finbarr Doyle is Duncan/Macduff, so for a second it appears Duncan has arrived to where he is to check if he’s sleeping… Doyle though is a notably gracious Duncan, and his Macduff has pleasing notes of integrity. He also engages Macbeth in a sword-fight which thrills because it is perilously close to the audience in this small venue, and, because of some tweaking of the text, looks rather like Macbeth is going to get the upper hand on Macduff.

Thompson’s cutting of the text puts us inside Macbeth’s head to a degree that makes him approach Richard III, except that instead of gleefully informing us what he’s going to do before he takes action, like Richard, this Macbeth is almost asking our advice on whether he should take action at all by outlining his qualms. Adlum has Macbeth simultaneously tempted and horrified by the witches. He has a painful awareness of what Jan Kott called ‘the grand staircase of history’ in Shakespeare’s plays. He knows that to kill Duncan will put him one level higher on the staircase, and will also create on the step he did occupy an equally lethal challenger to his new status. Laverty’s Lady M tempts him by pricking his vanity; she supplies the pragmatism for murder and immediate advancement, but not for reigning hereafter.

This lean production keeps our sympathy with a hero, first doing wrong out of fear of being usurped, who eventually collapses into amoral madness.

4/5

Macbeth continues its run at Smock Alley until January 25th.

February 15, 2012

Hamlet

Regular readers will remember previous worries about the possibility of an unbiased review if you know actors in a play. The problem is magnified with a play directed by Keith Thompson; my sometime co-writer, co-director, and leading man. This is a semi-unbiased review of his production of Hamlet in UCD’s Astra Hall last month with Sam McGovern playing the Dane.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio, a man of infinite jest

Thompson has form with Shakespeare at the Astra Hall as UCD’s Leaving Cert production. In 2007 his swaggering turn as Banquo alongside Ciara Gough’s charismatically domineering Lady Macbeth upended the text completely by reducing a slightly nervous Macbeth to interloper status in his own play. Thompson also upended expectations in Sarah Finlay’s King Lear with a lecherous and camp interpretation of Gloucester that superbly heightened the pain of that character’s grisly fate at the hands of Cornwall. Here, Thompson cut the text drastically to showcase naturalistic comedy and an arrestingly physical central performance from Sam McGovern. Patrick Doyle’s Macbeth in 2009 was an incredibly original performance that saw Macbeth as a distrait hero who, touched by magic, sees things others can’t before descending into psychosis. McGovern’s Hamlet was less determinedly uncanny but displayed an equally confident mastery of the verse.

Doyle threw away his most quotable quotes as mumbles to wrong-foot the audience expecting a scholastic reading, and Thompson simply chopped many of the most famous lines. Polonius becomes a very serious character because of his ‘advice’ to Laertes disappearing completely. This approach worked eventually but made the first act hard going. A minimalist set of clinical white drapes, and sparse props being wheeled in, made Sam McGovern’s first black-clad appearance very arresting; but his emo-Hamlet, grieving furiously in this anti-septic arena, led to overwrought scenes with the ghost which suggested that five acts played at a level of such painfully overdone earnestness, without any comic relief, would become unbearable. Far from it. The second act began with Hamlet in a red football shirt wheeling in a child’s sled of picture books and soft toys which he threw at Polonius…

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lingered in the memory because, from the moment Russ Gaynor as a drunkenly buffonish Guildenstern and Jackie Murphy as the sober sister Rosencrantz arrived, they were saucy, hilarious, and conveyed that they really were old friends of Hamlet, and that they had old shared comic routines and in-jokes. That feel of naturalistic comedy is what made this production sparkle. Murphy’s stunt casting as a female Rosencrantz paid off by making her plea to Hamlet to yield up Polonius’ body, ‘My lord, you once did love me’, unexpectedly affecting. The jokiness developing naturally from the text consistently allowed incredible depth to suddenly emerge as a counterpoint; most notably during the arrival of the players when a tableau was formed and a spot-lit, visibly stunned Hamlet turned to haltingly deliver the ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy.

Joking aside, the tragedy was streamlined by textual cuts; foregrounding Hamlet as a stalking avenger rather than chronic ditherer. This Prince was truly menacing in his madness, his murder of Polonius seemed to have been long in the making from his violent threats against Ophelia, Gertrude, and even Guildenstern, with his ever present and very nasty pocket knife. Colm Kenny-Vaughan’s antagonist Claudius deserves special mention. Gill Lambert and Niamh O’Nolan’s costumes were inexplicably New Romantic but Kenny-Vaughan worked their wizened make-up job to suggest a character decaying from the inside as guilt eats away his soul. He imported a huge amount of complexity into Claudius’s guilt, his delivery of the devastating couplet ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/Words without thoughts never to heaven go’ deeply regretful, and his assenting to drink the poisoned chalice becoming an atoning gesture.

Less showy supporting turns from Molly O’Mahony as a subdued but concerned Gertrude, and John Kelly as a nicely simmering Laertes, fleshed out a convincingly naturalistic Court. McGovern’s impressive madness was able to fly between high comedy, touching pathos, and startling violence in large part because of the grounding effect of Ben Waddell’s stalwart turn as Horatio. But, while there was much to praise in the interpretation of the text and the performances coaxed from the youthful cast, the default minimalist staging adopted by Thompson and producer Niall Lane never fully utilised the full playing space of the Astra Hall, and in its white-out effect was too reminiscent of Finlay’s 2010 staging of King Lear which offered late Kurosawa style colour coded royal houses against an icily austere backdrop. The climactic fencing duel, however, was thrillingly realised within this space.

Thompson and McGovern are unlikely to do another Astra Hall Shakespeare production but any future collaboration between them should be eagerly anticipated.

4/5

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