Polanski’s Macbeth by John A. A. Logan

At the end of last year, a birthday gift – the DVD of “Roman Polanski’s Film of MACBETH”, as the cover has it.

There, too, on the cover, a robed, crowned, bearded and enthroned Martin Shaw, holding what could be a shield, or a mirror, or a scrying glass, turned outwards and away from  himself.
Of course, in the film, Martin Shaw plays Banquo, not Macbeth.
I assumed that Shaw was on the cover because his fame nowadays is greater than that of the late Jon Finch, who did play Macbeth in this film, and that this was an attempt to shift DVD copies to Shaw fans.
Google suggests otherwise, though, with the consensus seeming to be that the company which produced the DVD had mistaken Shaw for Finch/Macbeth, and put him on the cover by accident, lifting the first still image they found on a scan, of an actor wearing a crown in the film.

I watched the DVD just after Christmas, with the friend who had bought me it.
We watched it in Inverness where it seems the real historical Macbeth had his real castle, in the Crown area of the town, not far from Lovat Road, just beside a school I went to once.
In the play by Shakespeare, as Macbeth is described as Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth’s castle is sometimes wrongly supposed to have been Cawdor Castle, about 11 miles from Inverness, but Macbeth was never Thane of Cawdor, and no castle existed at Cawdor in the real Macbeth’s day.
No matter, though, the historical Macbeth behaved very differently from the fictionalised Shakespearian Macbeth anyway, so naturally he would also have a different address.

In many ways, Polanski’s Macbeth is as different from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the real Macbeth must have been from the Bard’s image of him in the scrying glass.

Polanski set to work on this film a year after the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the “Manson Family” in Los Angeles.
Polanski emerged (partially at any rate) from the deep depression which had consumed him after the killings, and set to work on this new production of the dark, tragic “Scottish Play”, which would be financed by Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprises.
Inner Demons must be expressed perhaps, if not expunged, and so Polanski’s Macbeth is the necessary repository of a good many nightmare images and gut-twisting cruelties.
If Shakespeare’s imagination had taken him deep into one kind of hell with his original vision of the play, Polanski’s terrible life experience was the ticket needed to bring that tortuous train to its final, inexorable station.

Martin Shaw had, in fact, been Polanski’s first idea for the role of Macbeth, as Shaw recalled later:
“I got a phonecall from him. Would I like to meet him? So I went to his little mews house and he said he was making a film of Macbeth. Did I know the play? Only inside out, I said. It was one of the first things I'd done at school – I was a somewhat falsetto Macduff and then played Malcolm at Hornchurch Rep. Roman had a huge painting on his wall of a medieval warrior standing on a beach over a man he'd obviously just killed. He said that was the style he wanted to do the film in. He said I would possibly be a great Macbeth. So he organised a screen test at Shepperton. When I saw who else was being tested, my heart sank. I did the best I could, sat around for a few days and then he phoned. He said: "You're not going to play Macbeth. You're getting the second best role." And that was Banquo. Lovely Jon Finch was Macbeth”.

                                   Jon Finch as Macbeth

Jon Finch – the Surrey-born son of a merchant banker, before turning to acting he was a member of the Parachute Regiment and SAS Reserve Regiment.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the SAS and I'm still very proud of having been a member," he recalled. "But eventually I had to leave because I was becoming more and more involved in the theatre and the SAS demands most of your weekends and several nights a week."
One of Finch’s first roles was in the daytime soap, Crossroads, in 1964.
Just before portraying Macbeth, Finch had appeared in two Hammer Horror films, and the year after he played Macbeth, Hitchcock would cast Finch as the man wrongly suspected of being the “neck-tie strangler” in Frenzy.
Then, in 1973, Finch would be offered the James Bond role, and turn it down.
“I never wanted to be a big star,” Finch once observed: “I usually do one film a year, so I always have enough money to enjoy myself and keep myself out of the public eye. It’s a very pleasant life, not one of great ambition.”
And so it was, in 1970, Jon Finch, “not one of great ambition” himself, was Polanski’s choice for Macbeth, fated to wander those diverse settings the director had found for his film’s backdrop: Snowdonia, Northumberland, Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, and the North Charlton Moors, in fact wherever Polanski could find a bit of sea, beach, moor, castle, or cliff, as the scenery against which to contrast the terrible machinations of the haunted, o’erleapingly ambitious Scottish King.

For Lady Macbeth, Polanksi selected a very young Francesca Annis who, for me, never seems to quite come into focus in the role.
In a way, she should be the engine behind the story, but that isn’t what seems to transpire.
The Witches on the moor seem more solidly realised in Polanski’s version, than the Grand She-Schemer back at the castle.
But, who knows? Perhaps on a second viewing, my perspective would shift there, or perhaps, in the rewriting and reworking, the time constraints of film, Polanski and Ken Tynan wrote something essential out of the Lady Macbeth role?

Martin Shaw’s Banquo, of course, has a son as well as a Ghost, and that son, Fleance, is played by none other than a 13-year-old Keith Chegwin, who not long afterwards would be helping out on Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop!

                                 Keith Chegwin as Fleance

As Chegwin said later:
“I remember clearly I had to go to Marble Arch to meet this director called Roman Polanski, who I’d never heard of, and when I got there I found out that the film was a thing called Macbeth, which I had heard of somewhere. When I arrived, I had to sing for him, so I sang Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. But he wasn’t happy with where I was standing, so he opened the windows that looked out over Marble Arch, and I had to walk out on to the balcony, still singing. He was an amazing director to work with but very odd. I was booked for six weeks on the movie, but ended up working six months. What would happen was we had this fight scene in the woods with Banquo [played by Martin Shaw] and me [as Fleance], and it took three weeks to do. But Polanski wouldn’t look at the daily rushes and after three weeks he said: “I see rushes now.” And we’re all there watching the clips and he went: “Oh, wrong filter – redo.” And we had to shoot the whole sequence again. Often he’d turn up and say: “I no film today. I go home.” And he’d just disappear. That’s where I learnt to play guitar: Martin Shaw taught me. I became really proficient with a bow and arrow, and I was taught to ride. With Polanski, you just did what he told you to do. There was one scene where we all run into a banqueting hall and go to sleep for the night, and he just looked at Martin Shaw and me and said: “Take your underpants off.” And he was the boss so you go: “Fine, OK.” We just did it. Couldn’t work out why; still don’t know why.”

That three weeks work spent on the fight scene in the woods was time well spent.
Somehow, though short, it remains one of the most memorable moments in the film.
The attempt at murder on Banquo and his young son by Macbeth’s agents is failing.
Banquo is more the warrior than the assassins, and it is they who will not survive their time in the woods…or that is how it seems…until Banquo’s attempt to send Fleance ahead on horseback backfires, another assassin is on the river’s far side and stops the boy’s horse, that boy who will father a line of Scottish kings according to the Witches’ Prophecy on the moor.
Banquo sees what is happening, and turns his back on his own assailants, so that he can aim an arrow across the water and stop the murder of Fleance, which his arrow does, and Fleance rides away safe (to sire the line of kings from which James the 1st of England believed himself descended, and it was for James the 1st that Shakespeare wrote the play in 1606), but Banquo dies, from a blow to the back which he has had to turn to his assailants, in order to save his own son.

Just after I watched this 1971-released film, synchronicity pulled some strange strings somewhere behind reality’s scenes, and Keith Chegwin popped up suddenly on TV in January 2015, in Celebrity Big Brother, after I hadn’t seen him on TV for years.
Synchronicity seemed to be wriggling its fingertips in the ether again then, as, one night, the “Big Brother Theme” was to dress two of the “housemates” as King and Queen of the Big Brother House.
The duo, Perez Hilton and Cami Li, were regaled in colourful, thick robes and crowns, resplendent like usurping Martin Shaw on the Macbeth DVD cover, or like the usurping fictional Macbeths themselves had been of course, having taken a castle and a crown by murder.
For a moment, just as the very young Keith Chegwin had gazed on at the regal Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the 1971 film, here was an older Keith Chegwin in 2015, staring at King Perez Hilton and Queen Cami Li, perhaps wondering where all the time, and much-else, had gone away to…

And, perhaps, leaving myself, to wonder much the same.

Polanski and Finch, those castles, the moors, the Witches with their cauldron, the bubbling and throwing in of parts of animals and parts of people to make their spells, the walking forests and the men-not-of-women-born, the cries of horses and of murdered children, perhaps it all whirls out there in a vortex of memory, pain, and possibility…even maybe capable of punching a hole through to those parallel dimensions, alternate visions, that ineffable something that burns within, and acidically sears downwards until it finds the well bottom of our souls and spirits…
Which we tap into now…perhaps too easily…by opening that DVD case, and shoving the disc in a machine that whirs past tipping point, and lets the kaleidoscopic pictures swirl again, again, again…until those woods do walk, and those witches do talk, and golden crowns sparkle on giddy, misguided heads, only to have their reflections lopped off in the scrying glass, as sword reflections on castle walls become something we could very well mistake for our own lost selves…on nights full enough with fat moon, in which abandoned, hungry castle-keep dogs’ forlorn yelps might still sanitise upwards, like hymns themselves, to gods we haven’t yet fully thought of, or recognised in that mirror’s glass, thank goodness.  


Jan Needle said…
Fascinating read to wake up to, thanks very much John.
Kathleen Jones said…
Yes, thank you John! Best version of MacBeth I ever saw was by a Chinese theatre company from Beijing. They did him as a medieval Chinese warlord and it made complete sense. They also had some brilliantly choreographed sword fights. And then of course there's Kurosawa's Throne of Blood - brilliant!
JO said…
Yet another wonderful view of the Scottish Play

And Keith Chegwin, who seems to pop up in the most unlikely places!! I've seen him twice in pantomime - where he is at his very best. He just 'gets' kids - and they love him. Having seem him as Buttons it's a leap of imagination to think of him in Shakespeare!
Lydia Bennet said…
Synchronicity indeed John, I'm going to see Macbeth tonight at Northern Stage, a touring version by Filter which looks from the stills like another modern version - Macbeth lends itself to so many settings, gang warfare, and I love the Ian McKellen film version set in the 30s. There's also a fab TV version starring Sean Pertwee and Greta Scacchi.
Re Polanski, now a known child-rapist, a lot of the controversy at the time was making Lady B naked in the sleepwalking scene. It was widely believed that instead of 'what a sigh is there', Polanski had the line said as 'what a size they are' and it did actually sound like it. Him ordering a child to take off his underwear doesn't seem so inexplicable in the light of what we know Polanski is now. the film was compelling, using beaches for battlegrounds (including Bamburgh up the coast from me) very effective, Jon Finch well fit, and of course, all Shakespeare versions have the overwhelming advantage of the language, that intoxicating experience, which so many plays seem to lack - the actual dialogue seems written by computer in many of them.
Dennis Hamley said…
I haven't seen the Polanski Macbeth but I thought his Tess of the D'Urbervilles was one of the best screen adaptations I've ever seen, I tend to judge Macbeth productions by how they present the ghost of Banquo. I get very tired of Macbeth screaming at am empty chair. Back in 1960 I saw the Old Vic production with John Neville as Macbeth. A year later it went on tour and I saw it again in Manchester. Banquo's ghost was so superbly done that I - and I'm sure most in both audiences - actually felt physically afraid as if we really were in the presence of the supernatural. Well, perhaps we were. Shakespeare's are the best ghosts. What a play. And what a super post too, John. Thank you.
Áine said…
...And perhaps Shakespeare's are the best witches? I saw the version directed by Alan Stanford of Dublin last fall, prior to seeing the Polanski version, and it was very different - beaches and battlegrounds created in the minds of the audience. Oh, and Polanski had naked witches too. Stanford did not.
madwippitt said…
I've never seen this version. Now shall go look for one ...
Lydia Bennet said…
oops I just suddenly realised while watching Macbeth tonight that ian McKellen's 30s film was of Richard 3rd... clearly my brain is going!
Ann Evans said…
A great post and funnily enough I've been reading up on Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays for something I'm working on at the moment. However, I found a great illustrated children's book on the works of the Bard which brings it all down to my level!

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