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Review: RSC Macbeth (*****) on DVD, 1979

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The RSC production of Macbeth is available as a DVD  from:
Amazon.co.uk  for £5.00 and from
Amazon.com for $8.99
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.


Our Bottom Line:

This is the best production of Macbeth we have seen. It comes from the heyday of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was directed by Trevor Nunn, and stars Ian McKellen as Macbeth, and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. Nigh-on perfect! If you want a definitive version of Macbethand a production of the RSC in its prime, buy it!


Our Review (****)


01 The circle02.jjpg

The circle on the stage

This DVD  is based on the acclaimed RSC production directed by Trevor Nunn. The production cast and, wherever possible, the original RSC costumes, props, and sets are used.

The film opens with what I understand was the original opening of the stage production. The cast form a circle onstage to church-like organ music, before the three witches come centre-stage, and the show commences.

The effectiveness of the production is enhanced by the ambience created by lighting, effects, and some notable themes that run through it.


The film, although in colour, appears to be black and white. The background is usually almost completely black, with figures mainly in black costumes, with quite harsh lighting, creating high-contrast close-ups of faces, at least until Malcolm’s scene in England. Thereafter, the lighting softens a little.


Black and white affect the costumes as well. Most of the characters are dresssed in near-black – stiff Victorian(?) costumes for the nobles, with a flash of a white shirt. Certain of the characters are mostly white: Duncan, in a white gown, with a mane of white hair; Malcolm in a white, patterned, Aran jersey; the Gentlewoman watching the sleep-walking scene, dressed like a nun; and Lady MacDuff and her son, again mostly in white.


This is ‘The Scottish Play’, so how are accents handled? In general the ordinary folk (witches, old man, murders, doctors and gentlewomen) speak Scots, and the toffs speak ‘proper English’.


The witches screech

The witches screech

03 Duncans mea culpa

Duncan’s mea culpa

The production is faithful to the script as one might hope, but not afraid to add things to add atmosphere, or cut when helpful (mostly in Act 5). The play proper starts with an horrendous screech from the witches – a screech which will be repeated by Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene. And then A1S1 gets underway.

When we move to Duncan’s meeting with the bloody captain, the scene starts with Duncan praying ‘mea culpa, mea culpa’.



Macbeth's coronation

Macbeth‘s coronation

This religious feeling is increased by the coronation robe and crown worn, first by Duncan, and then by Macbeth at his coronation, another wordless addition to  the play The coronation robes, like a bishop’s robe and mitre, are accompanied by church-like organ music whenever it appears.


How do the actors respond to this dark, religious, atmosphere, with simple set and costumes? By delivering the lines of the play with extraordinary sensitivity and freshness, using it to show the psychological destruction of the two main characters as a result of their disastrous decision to murder Duncan.

After the murder of Duncan

After the murder of Duncan

The scenes between the principals: Lady Macbeth strengthening Macbeth‘s resolve, when he starts to weaken; waiting for Macbeth return from the murder; and her incomprehension at Macbeth‘s reaction to it: ‘Macbeth has murderedesleep…’ are played beautifully. The couple hold each other and their kisses and caresses demonstrate their closeness. The sound effects: an owl screeching; the daggers rattling against each other; and of course the Knock, knock, knock all add to the tension.

'While then, God be with you.'

‘While then, God be with you.’




And quickly, they begin to part into their own separate worlds of guilt. One line of Act III Scene I, deliverd by Macbeth to his wife,  is used to show Lady Macbeth that her husband has separated himself from her.

Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth! beware Macduff! Beware the Thane of Fife.

Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth! beware Macduff! Beware the Thane of Fife.







From here on, the couple begin a psychological descent into guilt, paranoia, and madness. After the murder of Banquo and rising fear of Macduff, Macbeth visits  the weird sisters to be reassured by their apparitions, witch-dolls, which Macbeth is left with.



Lady Macbeth descends into madness in the sleep-walking scene with a horrendous screech which made my ‘fell of hair … rouse, and stir.’ We watch Macbeth, too, becoming dependent on the dolls from the apparition, until they, too, fail him, and Macduff takes his life.


The principals are magnificent. Their command of the text, and the psychological state of their characters is absolute. But it isn’t only the stars that shine. Malcolm(Roger Ress) makes Act IV Scene III – the scene in England – come alive, where it usually drops the tension from the show. The witches are truly malevolent and disturbing – not the usual theatrical witches at all. In fact all the minor parts maintain the quality of the show.


If you’ve never seen a really satisfactory version of Macbeth, then, despite it’s age, this is for you.


Let’s Play,


Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’

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Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost

Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost

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