Many of us encounter Shakespeare during our formal education, with annotated texts that parse the meaning of the language and help us better understand what exactly is going on. While we are well aware that these works are plays, our experience with them, outside of maybe a few major motion pictures, is primarily through text.
As editors Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine explain, “in reading a Shakespeare play we should always remember that we are reading a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoke by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists.” I’ve always found it easier to understand Shakespeare when viewing it performed, as the actors can use the rhythm of the words, emphasis, gestures, and body language to fully convey the story.
When I was reading ‘Macbeth’ during English in high school, I was lucky to have a teacher who showed us a filmed production of the play from the British Royal Shakespeare company in 1978. The now well-known actors Ian McKellen and Judi Dench star as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectfully. Through the intricacy of their performances, the viewer is truly able to understand the depth of this play.
In the video below, Ian McKellen explains his approach to the delivery of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” McKellen internalizes the language and Shakespeare’s meaning to inform which words he needs to emphasize and how to drive the delivery in order to achieve the intended effect. With the material fully internalized, McKellen shares that the actor can feel like both the performer and the playwright simultaneously. If the actor fully comprehends the complexities and meaning behind Shakespeare’s words, McKellen believes they are able to elicit the correct emotional response in the audience, without the audience having to have that same very level of comprehension.
This 1978 production of Macbeth uses minimal cinematography, with dark, blackened backdrops serving as the outline of the actors’ performance. I recall that in high school I found to be quite simple, almost as a photographed play, but when I revisited this production for this post I found the minimal cinematography uncannily cinematic.
Theater and film are inherently different mediums. Film has additional elements, besides performance, stage, and light, that it can use to further convey a work’s ideas. The difference between, say, Elias Kazan’s 1951 film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and his 1954 film ‘On the Waterfront’ are stark. The former is quite simple in its use of a main set and character blocking, while the latter achieved a well-documented evolution in film grammar, adding more realistic cinematic tools to the American filmmaking landscape. Martin Scorsese explains.
The constant between both film and theater is the presence of an actor and their performance (in most narrative cases, with certain genres of films being the exception). And modern acting is rooted in the tools and techniques of the theater.
When an actor fully absorbs the source material, as Dench and McKellen do here, they are able elevate the work’s effect on audience, an effect likely embedded deeply in the original construction and intent of the author’s words. While a great performance in a film is aided by additional elements, the main core of a performance is still paramount for a complete character study.
McKellen and Dench’s ‘Macbeth’ perfectly exemplifies what great performances look like.