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In his second Shakespeare production for Granada Television, Michael Bogdanov skillfully avoids with Macbeth the traps of both televised and modern-dress Shakespeare productions. Despite his previous tenure with the Royal National Theatre, his Macbeth does not have the "stagey" feel of the BBC productions and other televised Shakespeare. At the same time, his "update" abstains from the gimmicks or self-conscious anachronisms of more obviously clever directors. Since he broke with the London/Oxbridge establishment in 1986 to set up the English Shakespeare Company, Michael Bogdanov has been dedicated to creating Shakespeare productions that are fresh, immediate, and real. And the Scottish tragedy has been his favorite ambassador.

In July 1994, Bogdanov filmed a project for the BBC in Birmingham housing projects,Shakespeare On The Estate. The documentary explored the impact of Shakespeare on working-class people. Ironically living within view of the Birmingham Repertory, he attempted to determine "to what extent this myth of Shakespeare, the popular writer of and for the people, is true." As part of this project, Bogdanov staged parts of Macbeth on the council estate: "I worked on ideas and extracts with a group of Asian youths, various representatives of the large black community, drunks, homeless, unemployed--the majority."

Sean Pertwee (left) in Michael Bogdanov's Macbeth

This video production is definitely influenced by Bogdanov’s experimental workshop in Birmingham. He employs run-down urban buildings, junkyards, and occasional thrift-store finery to evoke a post-apocalyptic feeling--as a parallel to the barbarism of medieval Scotland. This Macbeth, originally presented in 16-minute segments for middle schools, was woven together into an 87-minute version for Channel 4 Granada Television. On video, it definitely feels more like a Granada night-time soap than a BBC corset drama. Director Bogdanov and producer Sue Pritchard (former producer of the long-running Coronation Street) recruited a cast of television actors who would be familiar to young British viewers.

Macbeth is played by Sean Pertwee, best known to American audiences from Soldier and Event Horizon. His steely, blond beauty matches that of his Lady Macbeth, Greta Scacchi (Presumed Innocent and Jefferson in Paris). Pertwee presents an understated, tightly wound Macbeth, who becomes more introverted and secretive as he follows the witches’ counsel. Scacchi is a glittering, passionate Lady Macbeth who shatters like glass under pressure. Michael Maloney, who played Horatio in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and the lead in A Midwinter’s Tale, is compelling as Banquo, the only friend who can question Macbeth. The supporting cast adds regional and contemporary flavor but is generally not up to the level of the leading actors. This imbalance means that the scenes without the leads are less interesting, leaving Macbeth without a true foil after Banquo’s departure.

A psychological rather than metaphysical portrayal, Bogdanov's Macbeth does not depend on the wizardry of the camera to present Macbeth’s visions or the witches’ magic. For example, only Macbeth sees the dagger before him. The witches are also understated, appearing to be no more than homeless women until their predictions start to come true. The violence of the Birnam Wood sequence might be a little much for some middle school students, but overall this is an excellent introduction to the play, with a director’s "new" interpretation that illuminates the play without obscuring it. The 87-minute running time is also good for classroom use, though of course it means that significant sections of the play have been omitted, most notably the porter’s scene and the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son.

Overall, this is a solid and interesting production of Macbeth, with charismatic performances by Pertwee and Scacchi that make it worth viewing.


Macbeth is now available on VHS from Home Vision Cinema. For more information, check out the Home Vision Cinema Web site.