I have recently viewed a variety of productions of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. They differed greatly when compared to each other, as each director had their own individual approach to the play. I was sceptical of how some directors would comprehensively do justice to this classic play in an audio-visual version aimed at a modern audience. Each production had its own unique introduction, to set the theme for the remainder of Macbeth. In Polanski’s film version, he opened the play with a scene containing the “three weird sisters” who are witches, chanting and conjuring spells on a beach, while they buried various objects.
The beach is a vast area and there is no sign of life. This creates an eerie atmosphere as they entered into the scene. Prior to burying these objects they engraved a circle in the sand; a symbol of no weakness as a circle has no beginning and no end. Amongst these objects were a noose and a half an arm, clutching a dagger. From reading the text we see here that these objects are symbolic to the prophecies, and as they are associated with death and evil, raising the audience’s suspicion about murder and death, and also set the theme for the rest of the production.
The red sky may be used to represent blood and death. It also prepares us for Macbeth’s actions later in the play. Whilst they occupy a beach, the surrounding sky is a vivid blue colour. This could be to symbolise their coldness, as they will later tempt Macbeth, and make him feed on the “insane root” and the temp his with his own fate. The red sky may be due to the setting of the sun. Once the sun has set, it must decline in the sky and come down, this may be used to show the downfall in society as their king had been murdered, and the death of King Duncan himself.
This beach scene is also Polanski’s method of conveying the Witches’ world and the human world apart. His uses the beach as it is set beside the sea, and this boundary may, in my opinion symbolize the divide between their supernatural world and the normal world. They gather on the beach floor, and this is like a supernatural gathering and gives the impression of a seance. The Witches then leave the scene after talking, which included talks mentioning Macbeth, in which one the young Witch does not speak, the First Witch speaks her lines.
The young Witch accompanies the first Witch away from where the hole was dug, as if she were an apprentice Witch to the elder Witch. Polanski uses animal life to suggest evil. He uses the seagull as they were viewed as being almost like a puppet of evil, and they were seen as a bird that was a sign of misfortune. The music at this point is out of tune to represent how they are from another worlds and this gives the sense of an eerie, unnatural atmosphere.
When taking a look at the three Witches, Polanski chose to convey them as evil, and yet tried to tie in a sense of humanity as he tried not to get carried away with their evil abilities by not making it seem like they disappeared into the air. This was strange as he had the ability to do so as he had the aid of filming. A reason for this may be because Polanski wanted to add a grave sense of mystery right at the beginning of the play. The BBC 1998 version introduces us to the three ‘hags’ as three pre-middle-aged women reading tarot cards in act 1 scene 1.
This conveys the point that they do not mould the future for Macbeth but only interpret his destiny. Although this does not stay true to the text of Shakespeare, it is modernised to the extent where I find it more believable and frightening. The Witches have no physical abnormalities except the distinction of their long, curly painted nails to symbolise that they are different. The room was in complete shadow, and the only light was provided by a single candle.
Maybe this represents the last remaining ‘light’ deep inside Macbeth, as when the candlelight ceases the room will become saturated with darkness as will Macbeth’s soul. The three witches congregated to predict and foresee future events. Each Witch has an individual symbol presented on her face. This gives a sense that each Witch had been marked for a particular form of evil. This in turn shows how they are a covenant of true evil, as they had been assigned for a special task. In the 1998 BBC production the Witches enter on roller blades, giving the suggestion of “hovering” in some manner.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) opens the first scene with three Witches pacing through some sort of series of tunnels quite briskly during the night. We can only see them with the aid of night vision effects, which may support the fact that they are people of the night. Also, the green lighting emphasizes the black and white clothing of the different characters so the split between good and evil is even more apparent. In my opinion their ability to see in the darkness illustrates how they can predict and tempt Macbeth about his own dark fate.
The witches in the 1998 version speak discretely, in contrast to the R. S. C version where the Witches are panicking and shouting. The Witches have no facial abnormalities as facial abnormalities have little impact on today’s society. Unlike Polanksi’s version where the first Witch looks as if her eyes had been sealed shut to create a feeling of disgust, and the R. S. C. version where the Witches have facial growths and look repulsive and infected with disease, this factor would have a greater affect on today’s society.
The “three weird sisters” proceed towards Macbeth and Banquo with a great sense of fear probably due to their valiant nature, only coming home from a victorious war. Each production used the effect of shadows, camera angles, and sound to there advantage. In Polanski’s production whilst the Witches occupy the screen it was misty and this gave an eerie effect. Also when Macbeth and Banquo meet them thunder can be heard along side off-key music, which represents disorder and how un-natural the Witches truly are.
In the BBC 1998 version we see the effect of making the Witches portray that they are actually vanishing although it was done to an inferior effective finish. In the RSC version we see how the director has used to great effect night vision to his/her advantage to prepare the audience for the murder of Duncan. As green is used to symbolise envy, maybe this is to show Macbeths envy towards Duncan and his status of king. This focus on props and setting however prevented an in-depth look into characterisation and dialogue.
Also throughout the film Polanski was un-loyal to the text as his version focused a lot on visual settings and went into grave detail with the props and scenery. This made the film attractive to watch. This attention to scenery allowed Polanski to explore and portray the different settings we read about in the text such as the witches’ world. To conclude, Polanski remained loyal to the text in as far as dialogue and character development was concerned, but his advantage of film was not taken advantage of as was displayed in his poor portrayal of the witches vanishing, or not as it were.
I felt that the RSC version failed to do justice to Shakespeare’s play as the director’s incapability to stay true to the text was clearly shown in his/her production. The BBC production was also loyal to the text as all dialogue was used and this helped the director’s conveyance of character development, yet I feel that in his attempt to modernise this Shakespearean world the director detracted from the essence so the play, and falsely illustrated the settings Shakespeare attempted to portray. Due to this, the BBC version was my preferred production of the opening scenes of Macbeth.