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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Royal Shakespeare Company and YouTube   Summer 2020

Widely regarded as the finest production of Macbeth in a generation, Trevor Nunn's 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench retains all its power in this 1979 television version, which is well deserving of rediscovery four decades later.

The original staging, done in the round in a small space and with minimal props, drew much of its power from the audience's closeness to the actors. So the TV version's even greater intimacy I haven't measured this but I would guess that close to half of what you see are single faces in extreme close-up takes things even further in the same direction.

A special bonus to looking back at this production from the present is the reminder that that was a Golden Age for the RSC, with an extraordinarily strong mid-level to its company. Supporting roles here are played by John Woodvine, Bob Peck, Ian McDiarmid, Roger Rees, Greg Hicks and Griffith Jones, with nobody noticing anything particularly remarkable about all that talent in one room.

Ian McKellen shows us a Macbeth who senses from the start that he's getting into something that will be far more complicated than it seems, and who faces each new challenge with a horror mixed with an almost ironic resignation and with a determination to keep going that takes on a terrible dignity and heroism.

Judi Dench clearly sees that the key to Lady Macbeth's tragedy is that she is exactly the opposite assuming from the start that it will all be quick and easy and that she is stronger than he, she begins to crumble the minute things get thorny and he shows that he really doesn't need to rely on her.

You may live a lifetime without seeing a more soul-wrenching Sleepwalking Scene than Dench's, but it does not come out of nowhere as we have watched the character moving toward it all along.

The stars draw us into their characters in ways that are fascinatingly different but equally effective. McKellen frequently plays directly to the camera, while Dench does not, so that we are lured into his private scenes as co-conspirators while feeling uneasily voyeuristic about hers.

Bob Peck's Macduff is the best I've ever seen. Almost uniquely in my experience of this play director Nunn and actor Peck see and make us see that the England Scene, in which Macduff begs Malcolm to lead a rebellion against Macbeth, is not about Malcolm's self-slanders but Macduff's desperation.

John Woodvine is a thoughtful and suspicious Banquo, who sees more than he lets on, and the play loses a significant anchor in reality when his character goes.

Some very insightful combining of minor characters and doubling of roles turn Greg Hicks (Third Murderer, Seyton, others) into a dark and foreboding presence, while Ian McDiarmid plays a string of more benevolent roles as the production's Good Angel.

If there is a criticism to make about the TV version it is that designer Mike Hall carries stage designer John Napier's imagery a little too far. With just about everyone dressed in black against black backgrounds, the broadcast is almost monochromatic, and TV director Philip Casson has almost every single scene begin with actors slowly emerging from blackness and end with them receding back into it.

The best Macbeth of its era, this may well be the best Macbeth you will ever see.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  RSC Macbeth 2020