By Alan Mattli
In 2007, the satirical online newspaper The Onion published an article which, silly as it was, serves as a perfect summation of Shakespeare adaptations in the post-Olivier era. The piece, titled “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended”, tells the story of a local theatre director who is intrigued by the thought of staging The Merchant of Venice not on a 19th century Georgia slave plantation or in 1960s Las Vegas but in 16th century Venice – because, after all, “the great thing about Shakespeare is that the themes in his plays are so universal that they can be adapted to about any time and place”.
Which is precisely what people have been doing for decades now: medieval Verona became 1990s California in Baz Luhrmanns dizzying Romeo + Juliet (1996); ancient Rome turned into a Roman-dominated present both in Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011); Joss Whedon, in his wittily wonderful 2012 interpretation, swiftly moved the action of Much Ado About Nothing into the living room of his Santa Monica villa; and both stagings of Richard III I saw in a theatre had the humpbacked tyrant brandishing a gun instead of a sword, against the backdrop of contemporary and 1970s England respectively.
There is nothing wrong about taking a playful stance on Shakespeare’s settings – if anything, this variability is indeed a testament to the lasting brilliance of the Bard’s plays –, but the fact that this approach seems to have become the dominant mode lends those adaptations that actually stick to the original’s intentions a strangely arresting element of surprise.
Such is the case with Australian director Justin Kurzel’s take on Macbeth, which casts Michael Fassbender as the titular antihero, attaining the favour of King Duncan (David Thewlis) after defeating a rebel uprising in 11th century Scotland. Spurred on by his wife (Mation Cotillard) and three ghostly women’s prophecy that he shall be king, he distances himself from his gentler friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) and plans his bloody ascent to the Scottish throne.
Where other adaptations of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy stress hubris and the cold, unflinching progression of fate, Kurzel narrows the play down to its gritty, gory, primal essence. In keeping with the sparse Highland landscape, there is comparatively little outright dialogue in this version, which mainly relies on its powerful, beautifully colour-enhanced imagery to convey Macbeth’s slow descent into murderous insanity. This is no romantic vision of the Middle Ages – there is stately Dunsinane Castle, yes, but its high walls are cold and grim; the villages we see are ramshackle and boggy; on the battlefield, knights in shining armour are altogether absent, their places taken by screaming warriors caked in mud, blood, and warpaint, a thick layer of barbarism that pervades even the chivalric guise of nobility’s intricate garments. (Lady Macbeth’s royal make-up is not much more than a repetition of the raggery adorning her husband’s face in battle.)
It is no surprise, then, that Michael Fassbender never looks more genuine than when he stands among the bodies of friends and foes, every laboured, misty breath almost fetishised by Kurzel’s effective use of slow motion, which, along with the murky setting, is strongly reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Viking tale Valhalla Rising. Although some of his lines fall with a sense of weary inevitability – the “To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow” soliloquy sadly belongs to that category –, this is not a problem of acting but one of writing. Apart from Kurzel’s impeccable sense of direction and aesthetics, it is Fassbender’s quiet, controlled performance that assures this Macbeth‘s lasting impression. Him, clad in a king’s robe with an ill-fitting crown on his head, his unsettlingly vacant grin nothing more than a mad, animalistic baring of teeth, murmuring, “O, full of scorpions is my mind”, is not just a haunting image but a pivotal moment in a consummate performance that serves as a stark reminder of the lasting power of Shakespearean drama.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.