February 7, 2013
by Sal Robinson
The minor qualms expressed in the Independent recently over whether Scottish actor James McAvoy, at age 33, is too young to play Macbeth ignores one pertinent detail: he already has.
McAvoy was Macbeth in a 2005 BBC series, “ShakespeaRe-Told,” which set four of the plays — “Much Ado about Nothing,” “Macbeth,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — in modern contexts. “Macbeth” was set in a three-star restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, with McAvoy playing Macbeth as a sous chef, and Lady Macbeth, played by Keeley Hawes, as his wife and the restaurant’s maître d’. Shakespeare shoehorned into more recent settings doesn’t always work — and some of the re-settings fit awkwardly — but it turns out that the high-pressure, high-ego restaurant world maps excellently onto thane-ruled Scotland, and the central characters’ wallowing in (and then being haunting by) blood makes perfect sense in a kitchen. It’s actually something of a masterstroke on the part of writer Peter Moffat, who also re-casts the three witches as garbagemen, who appear, in the first moments of the film, in the midst of an endless landfill, surrounded by foraging birds. And McAvoy brilliantly enacts the at-first easy transition for a man of violence from hacking up enemies to hacking up allies.
And sometimes, of course, directors find an even closer parallel between subject matter and setting for a new production: the recent movie “Caesar Must Die” follows the production of an adaptation of “Julius Caesar” performed by Italian convicts in Rebibbia Prison, near Rome (and also recalls the recent “Gomorrah,” for which director Matteo Garrone cast Neapolitan locals, some of which have since been arrested for Camorra-connected criminal activity). The movie has been especially praised for showing the new actors in the process of finding connections between their own lives and the lines of the play — reliving the power plays, the backstabbing, the one-upmanship they knew well from their time outside.
The appeal of the film may be partly a vicarious thrill, a sort of closeness to crime filtered through old, dead theatrical crimes, but it also speaks to the shock readers continue to feel — whether it’s naïve or not — when returning to the plays. And the way that they function as an underlying set of stories that most readers are familiar with, so familiar that the plays can be ripped up, recast, staged in surprising locales, and basically run over by every form of dramaturgical novelty — and still remain as potent as ever.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.