Kathryn Hunter

The Tragedy of Macbeth

01/01/22

Filmhouse, Edinburgh

I’m not sure what to make of the writing credit for this latest adaptation of Macbeth. The wording – ‘written for the screen by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare’ – seems a tad… hubristic. Because this is mostly Shakespeare’s work, albeit deftly sprinkled with some movie dust. Coen’s direction here is sublime, and his pared back adaptation works really well. It’s just, y’know. ‘Play by William Shakespeare; adapted for the screen by Joel Coen’ would sit better.

But it’s my only real gripe (if I overlook the absence of a single Scottish accent in the, ahem, Scottish play). This is the best movie version I’ve seen – and I have seen a lot. Although Shakespeare never specifies the Macbeths’ ages, I’ve tended towards the view that they ought to be young: all that swagger and ambition and impatience. When they’re portrayed as middle-aged, something seems to be lost. Here, both lord and lady are actually old: they’re in their sixties; nigh on retirement age. And it all starts to make sense again: this is a last-ditch attempt to fulfil their dreams. Time and place “have made themselves” and the Macbeths can’t resist the temptation to finally realise their desires.

Shot in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth is a claustrophobic affair, with none of the epic battle scenes I’ve grown used to seeing in big-screen adaptations. Indeed, it feels very theatrical, the castle walls as contained and constraining as any stage could be. We rarely venture out of Macbeth’s castle; when we do, it’s into countryside so swathed in mist that very little is visible. This is a stripped back version of the play, shining a spotlight on the key elements and emotions.

Denzel Washington is magnificent as the flawed hero: this is a towering performance, at once imposing and accessible. We can believe in him as a good man corrupted by greed, unable to live with his own actions. Likewise, Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth we can understand: she’s not presented here as a temptress, leading Macbeth to his doom, but as his partner, his equal, persuading him to indulge in a shared fantasy. The consequences are as devastating to her as they are to him.

Kathryn Hunter – playing all three witches – is perhaps my favourite thing about this production. She’s a gifted physical performer, and lends the shape-shifting ‘weird sisters’ a wonderful unearthly quality. Again, Coen’s judicious employment of theatrical devices (it can’t be incidental that Hunter has worked extensively with Complicité) makes for a compelling and unusual movie; this is a successful hybrid.

Coen only deviates from Shakespeare when it comes to Ross (Alex Hassell). A minor character in the original play, he appears here as a Machiavellian schemer, sidling up to where the power is, with one eye always on what might happen next. He’s Iago; he’s Tony Soprano; he’s Dominic Cummings. The additional layer really works.

In short, this is a triumph. It lays bare the heart of Shakespeare’s play. So, proceed further in this business; be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire, and get yourself to the cinema. This is too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Kafka’s Monkey

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey at the Young Vic (photo by Tristram Kenton) Kafka's Monkey - pic 1

17/06/15

Home, Manchester

Based on Kafka’s short story, A Report To An Academy, and adapted for the Young Vic by Colin Teevan, (though it follows the original text pretty much word-for-word) Kafka’s Monkey is a fascinating monologue by Kathryn Hunter. It tells the story of Red Peter, an ape, captured in Africa and taught by his human masters to walk, talk and behave as a ‘human,’ mostly by aping the very worst aspects of humanity. Over a taut 50 minutes, we follow Peter’s progress from helpless captive to celebrated music hall performer and are left to speculate about the question of identity. Peter ultimately emerges as a misfit, a creature neither ape nor human but somewhere in between, and consequently a tragic figure. The play is completely dominated by Hunter’s extraordinary performance. Make no mistake, this is a tour de force of the actor’s art. She shuffles onstage, her body stooped and twisted and brilliantly embodies her simian character, eerily conveying Peter’s eccentric moves and his stylised way of speaking.

Sadly, the production’s other aspects aren’t quite in the same league. Teevan’s script attempts a form of iambic pentameter for Peter’s ‘human’ utterings and free verse form for his ‘monkey’ self – but the story is short on anecdotal material. The presentation is after all supposed to be taking place in a scientific establishment, which may go some way to explain its curious sense of detachment, but a more intimate approach would surely have elicited more empathy with Peter’s plight. A central screen seems somewhat underused, displaying as it does just one image, that of a chimpanzee. It’s left blank for most of the running time and might perhaps have been used to indicate different scenes – the hold of a ship, perhaps or a music hall. There’s a sparse electronic score, which again seems perfunctory, particularly when set against Hunter’s bravura performance.

There are a couple of welcome touches of humour scattered throughout the proceedings as ‘Peter’ interacts with people in the front row, hugging them, offering them bananas, coaxing them to join him onstage. Hunter also performs some contortions that elicit gasps of amazement from the audience. She’s worth the price of admission on her own, but I can’t help feeling that more supportive staging would have lifted this production to another level entirely.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney