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Plays

A307 Drama: Macbeth (BBC / The Open University, 1977)

Macbeth © The Open UniversityMy last post discussed a 1977 BBC Television transmission of a production of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. This was the first in a series of sixteen co-productions with The Open University designed to support the work of distance-learning students who were enrolled on the course A307 Drama. Today I will continue my wider case study on stage plays produced on television in educational contexts by turning to the second production in this series―Macbeth.

In the post on Oedipus the King I talked a lot about the background to this series of productions and I refer you back to that for more information on the aims of the A307 Drama course (for students to develop a critical understanding and appreciation of drama both as literature and in performance) and how it was taught (through ‘correspondence tuition’, radio and television); the rationale behind the selection of plays; the course team’s awareness and discussion of the course materials of the challenges in using television to encourage students to think about plays in performance on the stage; the ‘broad(-er)casting mission’ of The Open University―effected through radio and television programmes and the publication of the book From Sophocles to Fugard―to serve the general public as well as its students; and the production conditions (Alexandra Palace’s Studio A, modest budgets, etc).

Macbeth was directed by Paul Kafno, one of the quartet of men who directed the sixteen A307 productions for The Open University. The design was by George Wisner, lighting Ron Koplick, sound Martin Ward and special effects Gerry Abouaf. Corin Redgrave took the title role, Ann Bell played Lady Macbeth, John Golightly Banquo and John Richard Beale Duncan.

It is made clear to the students in The Open University’s ‘television notes’ that this is to be an abridged version of the Shakespearean play:

All the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are shown, most of them fairly completely, and Act II, scene ii has no cuts. The murder of Lady Macduff, the ‘English’ scene and the various ‘choric comment’ scenes, such as that between Ross and the Old Man, were omitted, and, with regret, the accession of Malcolm at the end. Minor characters were cut, and the battle scenes telescoped. (‘Supplementary Material A307’, 1977, The Open University Archives)

The aim of the programme, the ‘television notes’ continue, is ‘to concentrate on the development of Macbeth as a tragic hero within the frame of the main events of the play’.

The corpse before the witches © The Open UniversityMacbeth opens with a crack of thunder. The accompanying lightning flash illuminates the scene: three figures in an outdoor setting, indicated by one or two bushes, before a blood-red sky. As they speak the lines of Act 1, Scene 1 the camera closes in on their faces and it becomes clear that these three witches (played by Aimée Delamain, Hope Jackman and Susan Thomas) conform to stereotype: they are portrayed as mad, mature women with bad teeth, long unkempt hair falling over their faces (echoing Medusa, one sports many small plaits), and―in the case of another―a facial disfigurement on one side of the face which only reveals itself fully to the camera to throw emphasis on particular words (for example, when she later prophesizes that Macbeth ‘shalt be king hereafter’, 1.3.48). Act 1, Scene 1 closes with one of the figures placing a hat of some kind on a corpse whose head and shoulders sit upright before them (see the corpse, with skin eaten away and protruding, yellow teeth, in the adjacent image). Later, in Act 4, Scene 1, they crowd around a bubbling cauldron in which, at the appropriate points in the text, the three apparitions―a corpse’s helmeted head, the body of an upside-down, naked baby covered in gore and a child’s crowned head―appear as images which are overlaid on the blue, bubbling liquid.

Macbeth, Banquo, Ross and Angus © The Open UniversityWhat is interesting is that Act 1, Scene 1 is offered as a kind of prologue, for it is followed by the title captions (no.1, ‘Macbeth’; 2, ‘by William Shakespeare’; 3, ‘a shortened version concentrating on the main characters and line of action’). The production proper, then, opens with a close-up shot of Macbeth (Corin Redgrave) wrapping a rag around his hand. The camera follows the hand as he lifts it to his face to get a better look, whereupon he opens with ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ (1.3.36). There is the red sky again and the sound of crows. The ensuing dialogue between Macbeth, Banquo (John Golightly) and the witches is cut by about half. Macbeth urges the witches to say more about the prophecies, if they can (1.3.76), but they vanish: as he speaks they quickly bow their heads and turn away, and in the mist they fade from the screen, over a couple of seconds, to a drumbeat.

Macbeth and Banquo arrive before King Duncan (Richard Beale) who is at his throne, placed on a modest platform flanked by dignitaries. Notable in this scene is the quick camera work as Duncan announces that his elder son Malcolm (cut to him, played by Michael Mundell) is to be the Prince of Cumberland (cut to Macbeth for a fraction of a second, who looks petulant, his mouth opening slightly as if to speak). The cutting here was a little clunky, but the effect was achieved. In the aside which follows Macbeth speaks directly to camera―a powerful moment.

Lady Macbeth, with letter © The Open UniversityWe then observe Lady Macbeth (Ann Bell) reading out to herself her husband’s letter (Act 1, Scene 5) in a simple and attractive setting, with a window on the left seeming to provide the light by which she reads. This setting expands when the Attendant enters via a door on the right (which bumps a little too lightly shut on his exit) and then Macbeth, after which the camera pulls back so that we then see their bed. In the course of their conversation they kiss twice, each time for a few seconds, underscoring their love and commitment (the students’ ‘television notes’ comment on this: ‘we tried to convey that they loved each other securely and maturely, not obsessively’).

Just as in this scene the room is anchored with the three visual reference points of window, door and bed, the ‘television notes’ comment on how hints of architecture were used to suggest some of the castle scenes. So, for example, Act 1, Scene 7 opens with a dark, stone-walled passageway in Macbeth’s castle, lit only by the flame of a lamp on the wall. Two maidservants with large trays and golden goblets pass each other and the sense of the dinner party in the background is offered by a cheer or two and the distant sound of music. We see Macbeth help himself to a drink from one of the maidservants’ trays; he then comes closer and delivers his ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly’ speech to camera (1.7.6).

The setting for outdoor scenes is similarly suggestive: the nicely atmospheric setting for Banquo’s murder in Act 3, Scene 3 is simply the movement of moonlit clouds illuminating a leafless tree, accompanied by the gentle noise of the wind. ‘It will be rain tonight’ (3.3.18), he says, before we see his throat being slit, in close-up.

Banquo's ghost © The Open UniversityFollowing this, by contrast, is the most elaborate setting in the production. Fifteen or so figures sit at a heavily laden table for the banquet in Act 3, Scene 4. There is a fire, music, jolliness, the gentle murmur of talk. When Lennox encourages Macbeth to be seated, Macbeth sees, of course, Banquo’s ghost in his place.

There is no televisual wizardry in the portrayal of the ghost: Banquo appears as he did before, although now looking deathly ill. When the camera falls on Banquo’s face in close-up (pictured here), a screech of electronic music conveys Macbeth’s alarm. Again, the device of quick cutting from face to face is employed: from Banquo’s face we move for a split second to Macbeth, who covers his face, then back to Banquo, then to Macbeth who peeks through his hand back at Banquo. Macbeth moves around the table and we see Banquo stand facing him; when Ross encourages everyone to rise we see the table from the original side and the chair vacated, to make absolutely clear that what Macbeth saw was merely an apparition. Similarly, the ‘air-drawn dagger’ is represented simply by slices of light emanating from a narrow, cross-shaped window (this isn’t immediately clear, but it becomes so later in the scene when we see the window from another perspective).

In contrast, the fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff is less prosaic. When their swords clash, the metallic sound is held while the action goes into slow motion: first we see Macduff’s face, and then we watch him from behind as he thrusts his dagger into Macbeth’s torso. The only noise during this sequence is Macbeth’s heartbeat (not a very distinct heartbeat but it is clear from the rhythm, which accelerates as the dagger enters him, that it is indeed one). The beat is slow and steady as we cut to a shot of the dagger in his stomach. He stands for a few seconds; the camera cuts to the frozen face of Macduff (the very same frozen shot we saw seconds ago, which is a shame); and Macbeth slowly falls against the throne, onto the floor, with his heartbeat slowing to a stop as camera closes in on his face. And thus ends this television version of Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth, 'Out, damned spot!' © The Open UniversityThe substantial cuts to the text obviously present a diminished version of the play, but the programme’s aim to concentrate on the development of the character of Macbeth and present the main events of the play is pretty well achieved.

One particular strength of this production is that it was all very darkly lit, suggesting the mood and darkness of the play. I have concentrated above on getting across how some of the potentially more complicated scenes were shot, but it must be emphasized that much of the script is delivered by characters against a black background (as here, with Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, damned spot!’ scene). This, together with the generally minimal settings and low lighting, effectively throws the audience’s attention onto the actors and the script―or, rather, the characters and the dramatic action.

(Photographs © The Open University)

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Discussion

One thought on “A307 Drama: Macbeth (BBC / The Open University, 1977)

  1. Thanks for this interesting analysis. I’ve made use of your helpful posting here: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/History-of-the-OU/?p=1721

    Posted by Dan Weinbren | 12 September 2011, 6:49 pm

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