Review: Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth

I feel like we’re experiencing a resurgence in the popularity of Shakespeare lately. Tom Holland is playing in Romeo and Juliet. Sir Ian McKellen just revisited Hamlet. Both Ralph Fiennes and David Tennant have taken a turn at Macbeth, I hope all of these are filmed so we can share them far and wide.

Luckily I had the chance to see Fiennes’ version as it came through our local theatre in one of those pseudo “one night only” things. Very limited, very short time release. Is it available near you? Check your local theatres!

Witches from Ralph Fiennes' production of Macbeth

Our experience was interesting. We went at 7 pm on a weeknight, and with a 15-minute intermission, the show goes over 2.5 hours. For a while, we (my son and I) were the only ones in the theatre. I wish I’d brought my own edition of Macbeth so I could study up on the text while the lights were still on. But a few minutes before showtime, another family did join us.

So How Was It?

I go into all Shakespeare productions optimistically. There will always be something I like, and hopefully, those bits are more interesting to talk about than those that weren’t so good. This one, I think, ends up pretty middle of the road and overall kind of forgettable.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

  • Too many cuts. This production still went over 2.5 hours, and yet recognizable moments like the third murderer, Hecate, and even the entire Porter scene are cut completely. Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies already. I guess they had to make time for Fiennes’ acting. Those are reasonable cuts that don’t add directly to the action (though I do enjoy seeing how productions choose to interpret third murderer), so it’s not a horrible thing, I just hate looking forward to a scene and having it not show up at all. That’s worse than seeing a bad version, at least we can talk about why a bad version is bad.
  • The audience. If it wasn’t already established, this is a filmed stage production. The first few scenes are completely silent. I honestly thought they were acting to an empty house, which I thought must have been really weird for them. But then — during Duncan’s murder, no less — the audience comes to life. And laughs. Once that seal was broken, so to speak, the audience began laughing throughout the rest of the play.
  • Apparently, you can play Macbeth for comedy. It’s one thing for the audience to laugh awkwardly or randomly. When Macbeth cowers around his wife, telling her he’s afraid to go back to Duncan’s room, the audience laughs. At other times Fiennes mugs for the audience, deliberately doing things worth laughing at. After Banquo ruins the banquet and Macbeth is left arguing with his wife, he does so while circling the table, emptying all the half-full wine glasses into one before downing it. I don’t mind a few laughs – after all, the porter was there for a reason – but the second half had way too many laugh moments and not enough shock and awe for me.
  • Second Murderer. Or maybe he was supposed to be First Murder, I’m just demoting him because the other guy did better and got more to do. This dude, though, went to the I MUST SHOUT ALL MY LINES NO MATTER THE CONTEXT school of acting. I thought it was a joke, maybe the audience should have laughed. They’ve just shown up at the banquet to let Macbeth know that BANQUO IS DEAD MY LORD HE’S LYING IN A DITCH BUT FLEANCE ESCAPED. Thanks chief, the people 10 feet away at the dinner table didn’t quite hear you.
  • Four words, “ghost of Lady Macbeth.”

Things I Did Like

  • I really liked Seyton, who was more “Generic Servant.” You’ve got half the cast military – tough, scarred, dirty – and have royal -prim and proper, fancy clothes and speech. And then there’s Generic Servant, with his shaved and bleached blonde hair and dangly earring, dressed nicely in a suit but clearly looking like he could hit the club when he gets off. This kid crushes it, serving up “I have been a loyal servant to this household and will faithfully execute my job, whatever it may be, but I can see everything apart around me and I don’t how how to stop it.” He shows up to warn Lady Macduff, he talks to the doctor while Lady M sleepwalks, and I’m thinking, “This kid had better be Seyton.” Which they definitely pronounced Satan. And he was. When Lady Macbeth falls to the floor he rushes to her side, at a loss how to help her but instinctually trying to. He was great.
  • Fiennes does act well, I’ll give him that. His Macbeth never really gave “warrior”. I never found him this scary beast or super soldier. He was more natural as a coward hiding behind his wife, who didn’t want to acknowledge that he was a coward. In the end, he does “paranoid and borderline insane” nicely. I just didn’t love this interpretation of the character. I didn’t feel anything for him. No fall, no redemption. Just a guy.
  • Macduff getting the news that his family has died. I am so used to this being an over-the-top hysterical moment that I didn’t know what to do with this one. Macduff reacted … not at all. Silent stare. And I thought that’s it? But as the scene continued I realized that what we were getting was a man in shock. The hysterical Macduffs have immediately realized what’s happened and are processing it. This Macduff basically froze, as if the universe had glitched around him. His repeated asking “all my chickens? all?” was done with lengthy pauses as if he kept getting the answer but couldn’t process the answer. Only at the end does he finally break down and bring the scene full circle. I thought it was outstanding. Never seen it done that way before.
  • The witches always seem to be the biggest blank slate when it comes to interpreting this play. I’ve included a picture. I keep wanting to say that there’s a certain “school girl” look to them but that’s not accurate. Maybe it’s just because they’re all dressed similarly and give off a certain creepy vibe. It’s almost Exorcist-like. They felt possessed. Which is good. The later ghosts are done as possessions of other bodies. Beyond their look, these were witches that wandered randomly throughout the play. Sometimes they were on stage, watching. Never interacting. They even come back at the end, putting a nice bookend on the whole thing. One thing I didn’t like, though, is that there’s a spot where Lady Macbeth clearly looks right at them. That could have been a mistake for all I know, but I have to assume that a filmed version has the opportunity to edit out such things.


One scale to use for judging filmed productions is, would you recommend it to someone? Would you bring it up in conversation? As far as Macbeth’s go we all talk about Ian McKellen’s and Patrick Stewart’s, and even the more modern Denzel Washington and Michael Fassbender versions are often in the conversation, though perhaps precisely because they’re the more modern ones. Then you’ve got your classics, your Roman Polanski, your Orson Welles.

I just don’t see this one in that pantheon, even though it’s arguably now the newest and should be (by the Fassbender Washington rule) the most discussed. It will soon be more like, “Oh, yeah, Ralph Fiennes did Macbeth, too. I forgot about that one. It was all right.”

Sunday Afternoons With Judi

I waited in (virtual) line for Dame Judi Dench’s audiobook, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent. Like Sir Patrick Stewart’s book, this is one of those things that as a Shakespeare Geek you simply must experience. These are the gods and goddesses of our art still walking the earth. When they speak, we must listen.

At first I thought I was going to be disappointed with this book, as I noted in a previous post. It’s not at all like Stewart’s book. This one is not a traditional biography, auto- or otherwise. This is a collection of interviews between Dench and the narrator, her longtime friend Brendan O’Hea. The good news is I still loved it. I have the perfect analogy. Ready?

Dame Judi Dench

Imagine you’re a child again. It’s Sunday afternoon and your parents tell you that you’re all going to visit your grandmother at the rest home. Your grandmother used to be a world-famous stage actress. You’re so excited! You love visiting your grandmother; you can listen to her stories for hours. You happily travel to where she lives, and you find her seated in her comfy chair, with a cup of tea, and a book of puzzles on the table next to her, perhaps a quilt in her lap. After hugs and kisses hello, you settle down at her feet and say, “Tell us about when you were an actress?”

That’s exactly this book. One chapter is about Macbeth, another about Twelfth Night or Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline. There’s a chapter about rehearsals and one about audiences. It’s basically O’Shea saying, “Now, Judi, you first played Ophelia when you were 15…” and Dench going deep into memory, telling us what she wore, what jokes the actors played on each other, even quoting her favorite passages like they’re still as fresh in her mind as they were 60 years ago.

Also, just like a conversation with your grandmother, there are odd non-sequiturs that pop up between the stories, like the time they argue over whether Judi burnt the pork chops. And I’ll bet she’s not the only grandmother to utter exclamations like, “What the fuck does YOLO mean?” Breaking news, Dame Judi Dench has a filthy mouth. O’Shea even tells her, in the extra material, that editing out all her f-words was the hardest part of the whole book.

Just like listening to our elders tell their stories, it’s important to listen. Dench has stories from over fifty years of performing most of Shakespeare’s canon, and oh my yes, she has thoughts. We’ll hear her thoughts on favorite parts and plays she hates, theories she believes in, and those she finds utterly ridiculous (watch out, people who want to argue that Much Ado About Nothing is about lady parts…) Many of her stories involve actors no longer with us, making them even more important. Speaking their names – John Barton, Peter Brook, John Gielgud – feels like conjuring their ghosts to rise again. She paints a vivid picture, and you’re right there with her.

Like Stewart’s book, this one absolutely benefits from the audiobook treatment. It’s a conversation, so the back-and-forth banter is part of the fun. Dench’s voice is also a thing of beauty. I’ve watched her recite Sonnet 29 on the Graham Norton Show many times, and this is like a whole book of that. At any time, you realize she’s switched to reciting, and you can just sit back and bathe in the luxury of it. And also, like too many of our own cherished loved ones, one day that voice will be gone. So we need to cherish it while it’s here. If they told me tomorrow that Volume Two was coming out next Shakespeare Day I’d put my name on the list for that one, too.

Dead, My Lord, The Queen Is

This post is brought to you by My Own Personal Shakespeare: Macbeth Edition, our newly released book, now available on Amazon! Recapture what Shakespeare means to you.

Over at the Bardfilm blog, our good friend KJ put up a lengthy post dissecting scenes of Macbeth in the Max series Barry. If you’re a fan of either Macbeth or Barry (or Bill Hader, who stars) it’s definitely something you’ll want to check out.

I want to grab a piece of that post and expand on it. In the scene, Bill Hader plays Seyton, entering in Act V Scene V to deliver his line:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

Instead, it comes out

My lord, the queen is dead.

Here’s the thing: I really like that second one better. It’s an example you don’t often imagine—it’s not changing any words, leaving them out completely, or giving them to another character. It’s just flipping the order. Without the script in front of you, you’d be hard-pressed to remember which is the original.

But once you see them both delivered, the change is obvious. As written it feels way too formal to me. Like Seyton has no personal feelings on the matter He’s all formal. He interrupts, he remembers that he has to properly acknowledge Macbeth, then he continues his message. I suppose you could almost imagine him bursting into the room with the intent to just yell, “The queen is dead!” but he can’t do that, he’s got to throw the “my lord” in there.

Flip it, though, and it changes so much. Now it feels like he’s breaking the news. He addresses Macbeth not out of formality but because he’s got a message for him and wants his full attention. You could drag out the pause here as long as you like, depending on how difficult it is for Seyton to deliver the line. He’s about to tell Macbeth that his wife is gone.

Consider when Ross has to deliver a similar message to Macduff, that his wife and children have been slaughtered. He can’t even do it at first. Macduff is so excited to see him, asking for news, that Ross lies:

MACDUFF How does my wife?

ROSS Why, well.

MACDUFF And all my children?

ROSS Well too.

MACDUFF The tyrant has not batter’d at their peace?

ROSS No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.

It’s only after Macduff presses him, knowing that something’s up, that he is able to deliver the real news. Unlike Seyton, he goes on about it in great detail. Seyton has to pack all of his feelings on the matter into one line, just four words. By shifting a few words he goes from neutral observer to emotionally invested in the scene.

Where are some other good opportunities, in this play or others, where a similar re-ordering of words can make such an unexpected impact?

Still The Champion

Shakespeare as the champion

Well, folks, that’s another Shakespeare Day in the books. Did you have fun?

Maybe I’m watching too much pro wrestling lately (did anybody even recognize the shout-out at the beginning of the day?), but I love this image. I had it painted in classic LeRoy Neiman style, if anybody remembers his class Sports Illustrated images. Shakespeare as the Champ.

Twenty years ago, I started teaching my kids Shakespeare before one of them could even talk. It’s been a long trip, to be sure, and I had no idea how it would turn out. Now here we are with a book and everything! I wonder what’s next?

Number #1 With A Bullet

So, there’s this funny thing about publishing a physical book on Amazon – the reports don’t actually update until the book ships Which means the next day. So I have no idea how many copies of My Own Personal Shakespeare: Macbeth Edition we were lucky enough to sell today. I’m not sure I’ll sleep tonight, I’ll just keep refreshing the page into midnight and hope the time zones are my friend.

But what I can say is this…


Check It Out!

New Releases in Shakespeare Dramas & Plays

Look! It’s me! Thank you so much to everyone who ordered. I may have no idea what that actual number is yet, but I know it’s enough to do *that*. And that is pretty cool.