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.

Conclusion

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

https://amzn.to/4ae0Kc7

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.

Seeing The Plays In Succession

Cartoon Shakespeare as three siblings fighting

Of course, by that I literally mean, let’s talk about the different Shakespeare plays we all saw in the HBO Max series Succession.

Did I fool anybody?

I know, I’m late to the party. I tried watching Succession back when it was new, but my attention drifted to Ted Lasso. I knew that Succession was supposed to be this King Lear meets Fox News type of thing, but I really have to get myself in the mood to sit through that kind of doom and gloom,

Well, we finally saw down and watched all four seasons. So let’s talk about it. It’s been long enough, so I’m not going to bother warning about spoilers. But I’m also not going to tell you who ultimately gets the kingdom, either.

Is It King Lear?

The comparison here is the most obvious one. Three children all vie to control their father’s kingdom. The thing is, that’s where the comparison ends. There’s no Cordelia here. All the children are equally horrible, both to each other and to their father. For his part, Brian Cox (who can hold his own against real Shakespeare material any day) treats them equally horribly as well. There’s no Kent, no Fool, no descent into madness. Could you stretch it a little bit and go looking for those things? Sure, I guess. Has Roman got some Cordelia in him? Are Frank and Carl supposed to be some sort of Fools? I think that’s stretching it.

So What Is It?

Just like how the Lion King is as much Henry IV as it is Hamlet, we can say the same about Succession. Let’s look at a few:

  • Julius Caesar – A fairly obvious one, to start. You don’t get to amass that kind of power without making plenty of enemies, no matter how much you may think you’re the good guy doing the right thing, The biggest question is how many of them ultimately are there, and which of your friends will be the one that tips the scales in their favor?
  • Coriolanus – Listen, if you put in the work and rise up the ranks to become the hero of Company A, and then you’re unceremoniously outcast from that Company that you helped build, what’s the logical thing to do? Why, go and join their sworn enemy and try to take them down, of course.
  • Hamlet – I read this one somewhere. I didn’t pick up on it myself, but there’s an argument to be made that later in the series, there’s a Fortinbras character making his steady march on Denmark, ready to waltz in and pick over the pieces after they destroy themselves. I was too busy being impressed by how much he resembled Elon Musk.

Mostly, though, it’s Macbeth. I wouldn’t have said that until the final episode, but really, for those who have seen it and know what I’m talking about? The show ended and I said, “So, it’s Macbeth. That was totally Macbeth.”

What other influences did you see? People want to say Richard III for all the “I’ll take out anybody that gets in my way, including family members,” which I suppose is true. Are there any plays that aren’t about ruthless leaders who will do anything to win?

My Shakespeare Book Nook

Shakespeare Book Nook Bookshelf Puzzle

These cool puzzles were all over TikTok a few months ago. My children, at this point, are all trained to see Shakespeare merchandise that I don’t already have and grab it, so I was happy to see that my son found the Shakespeare version (it comes in several different versions).

It’s called a “Book Nook,” and the idea is for it to sit on your bookshelf and represent this complete little world. At least, that’s how I interpret it. I’ve made a video so you can take a look inside. It’s quite detailed – almost all of the individual books have accurate titles, including plenty of Shakespeare (though this is probably not obvious in the video).

I will say that it was quite a challenge to put together. The entire thing is flat-packed like Ikea furniture, so you must snap out every piece. The books are all two pieces – the body and then a sticker – so you can imagine where there are shelves or stacks of multiple books. There are potted plants, rolled-up posters…even the open book sitting on the comfy chair is a fancy sticker. My son eventually had to help me put it together at the end. My hands were just too big (and my eyes too old) to see it through to the finish. But that makes it more special.

I love the depth of dimension it manages to get. Note the staircase in the back and the upper balcony. The mirror really gives that illusion of a continuing space.

If you like puzzles, it’s definitely a neat project. Make sure you have a cool place to show it off. I definitely think it needs to sit between some books – if you just leave it standing on its own it looks a little like a phone booth.

Available for purchase on Amazon.

Review: Much Ado About Anyone But You

I did not expect to be reviewing Anyone But You. It is a generic rom-com featuring a young lady, Sydney Sweeney, who I know only from my children, telling me about Euphoria. The trailers do not suggest much chemistry. This one feels like it’ll come and go pretty quickly.

Until I realized that the plot is about a man and woman who look like they hate each other, but only because they really like each other and are both afraid to admit it. Does this have Much Ado About Nothing vibes? Maybe I can pull some content from it.

Anyone But You Shakespeare - AI-generated Beatrice and Benedick

Until I realize that it is a deliberate modern adaptation! Very cool. It’s been a long time since we had something like this. A friend mentioned She’s The Man the other day, which got us talking about 10 Things I Hate About You. But those were twenty years ago. Time for something new? The IMDB page calls it a “loose adaptation.” The commercials don’t seem to mention it at all. Let’s see!

The characters are literally named directly from the play. Sydney Sweeney’s Bea is paired up with Glen Powell’s Ben. Later, we’ll meet her father, Leo, Ben’s best friend, Claudia (now cast female), and her partner, Halle (I guess they couldn’t do much with Hero). Meddler Pete (perhaps an appropriately-cast Pedro character would have been a little over the top?) will hang out around the edges of the story, and Jonathan will be about as close to a villain as we’re going to get. So far, so good. They didn’t have to do that. That’s the kind of thing I do when I play with this idea — start with the original names and then shorten them backward until you get a modern, acceptable equivalent. Maybe that’s what the writer did here?

The premise tracks pretty closely as well. We get the backstory that the original doesn’t give us – we see Bea and Ben have a lovely meet-cute that ends badly due to a misunderstanding, setting up the whole “I really liked him/her, and I’m not over how hurt I am, that it didn’t work out” dynamic. Sometime later, they are reunited when Ben’s friend Claudia announces her wedding to Halle, Bea’s sister. Even better, it’s a destination wedding in Australia.

Let the fireworks begin! They do what they can here with the banter back and forth – the writer is no Shakespeare. Every time B&B is together, they take cheap shots at each other in a wholly unrealistic way. If two friends-of-friends in real life acted like that, their friends would make it a point to keep them apart or at least tell them to shut up. But in our movie reality, they all get together and say, “Well, it’s clear that they both want to jump each other, so let’s set that up.”

It eventually goes off to be its own thing – Ben actually likes the Margaret character, and Jonathan is Bea’s ex-boyfriend. Bea and Ben quickly see through the “get them together” plan and decide to fake it to get everyone off their backs. So it’s got some amount of original content, which I can’t fault it for.

People who keep telling me that The Lion King is Hamlet need to watch a movie like this to see how you do an adaptation. On the one hand, this thing isn’t trying to be Shakespeare. The comedy is tired and obvious, going for the easy physical laugh whenever it’s available rather than trying to do it with dialogue. On the other, it literally sprinkles Shakespeare quotes – actually attributed to Shakespeare – throughout the movie. People walk by billboards with Shakespeare quotes. Again, didn’t have to do that.

So yes, we have an R-rated modern romantic comedy that’s banking mostly on “Sydney Sweeney in a bathing suit” popularity, but once you’re in your seat, it’s not afraid to say, “Ha! This is actually Shakespeare, psych!” I’m pleasantly impressed. Regular reviews talk about the chemistry (or lack of) between the stars and the lovely scenery of Australia. But I’m just looking for the Shakespeare references. I wish they leaned into it more heavily in the marketing, and more people might give it a chance. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought without the Shakespeare connection. And here we are.