Jack Gold’s 1983 BBC version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of the most popular modern film adaptations of Shakespeare’s famous play. Starring Nicol Williamson (Macbeth), Jane Lapotaire (Lady Macbeth), Ian Hogg (Banquo), and Tony Doyle (Macduff), Gold’s film stays true to Shakespeare’s original dialogue, setting, and characterization while updating the classic tale for a modern television audience.The plot of Gold’s film version follows exactly that of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. When Macbeth and Banquo, both trusted generals in King Duncan of Scotland’s army, secure a victory for the king against a mounting rebellion, King Duncan appoints Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, which, ironically, is exactly what had been prophesized to Macbeth by the three witches he and Banquo had met in the wilderness. Those witches also prophesized that Macbeth would be king and Banquo’s children would also reign.
When Macbeth is crowned Thane of Cawdor, as the witches had prophesized, Macbeth sends word to his wife, Lady Macbeth, of the witches’ divination. What transpires next is a series of violent acts that threaten the very core of Scotland’s rule. Lady Macbeth conspires with her husband to kill the King, and afterward Macbeth is crowned king, since Duncan’s sons have fled in fear and suspicion. Macbeth arranges to have Banquo and his son murdered for fear of his progeny also fulfilling the prophecy, but Banquo’s son escapes. Macbeth consults again with the witches, who tell him that Macbeth should fear no one “born of woman,” and that he is safe until Birnam Wood rises against him. The narrative comes to its conclusion as Macduff and Malcolm (Duncan’s son) indeed to rise against Macbeth from Birnam Wood. Macduff kills Macbeth, installing Malcolm as the rightful heir.
The acting and directing of Gold’s film are top notch. Nicol Williamson is a believable and emotive Macbeth, successfully capturing his madness and instability, brought on by guilt, while Jane Lapotaire puts in a remarkable performance as the devious and manipulative Lady Macbeth. Lapotaire’s acting skills shine best in such scenes as those where she attempts to bolster her husband’s confidence while at the same time covering for his violent public outbursts, and her guilty nighttime sleepwalking, manifestations of guilt that drive her to madness and, ultimately, death. Other notable actors are Tony Doyle, portraying the tortured Macduff, as he learns of the merciless slaughter of his entire family at the hands of Macbeth’s soldiers, and the three witches, Brenda Bruce, Eileen Way, and Anne Dyson, who turn in fascinating and believable performances as the sadistically portentous soothsayers. Gold’s directing also deserves much praise, as he flawlessly reproduces the kind of morbidity, insanity and violence characteristic of Shakespeare’s original. Gold’s setting, filming, and production values are very high, especially for a made-for-television film.
Design elements of the play revolve around setting. Gold captures the gloomy feel of Macbeth through visual devices such as dim, contrasted lighting, that typically casts characters’ faces in shadow as cameras zoom in for close-ups of their tortured visages. Gold also uses design choices such as authentic medieval outfits and props, like the throne room chair and banquet table, that add realism to the stage. Atmospheric effects such as continually rolling fog enhances the gloomy feel of the set.
Overall, Gold’s adaptation is remarkably successful. Through the expert acting—including authentic accents for the characters—atmospheric setting, high production values, believable props, engaging sound effects, and eerie musical score, the viewer feels transported into Shakespeare’s tragic narrative. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and deservedly so. It portrays the tragic effects of power and ambition on the human psyche and explores the juxtaposition between such complex themes as that between fate and human choice.
- Macbeth. Directed by Jack Gold. Adapted from William Shakespeare. British Broadcasting