If you’re lucky, there are moments in live theater when the artifice fades away, and a startling intimate connection between performer and audience forms. Even though your brain knows it’s a play and these are actors, something deeper and primal stirs in that moment. “This is happening, here, now.”
No movie adaptation of a stage play can hope to achieve that, but Joel Coen’s bold “The Tragedy of Macbeth” comes awfully close. Coen, working without his brother and longtime creative partner Ethan for the first time, blends the theatrical and cinematic in powerful and immersive ways. When the weary Macbeth (Denzel Washington) or canny Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) gaze dead straight into the camera, they seem to see us, watching them.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” premieres Friday on Apple TV+.
In his adaptation, Coen has stripped William Shakespeare’s play down to a lean, brutal 105 minutes. While the marquee lines are still there (“Out, damned spot!” “Is this a dagger I see before me?”), Coen prefers to use visuals as much as possible to tell the story of MacBeth’s power-hungry downfall. That dagger glowing in the distance? It turns out to be a door handle, representing the fateful choice that Macbeth makes.
This “Macbeth” was filmed in stark black-and-white on soundstages, the obvious artificiality giving scenes of windswept fields and Brutalist castle architecture an eerie, almost dreamlike power. While the staging is deliberately theatrical, the imposing framing harkens back to sources such as German Expressionist cinema and “Citizen Kane." Light and shadow are used to slice and shape each frame.
At 66, Washington would seem to be more suited to play King Lear than Macbeth. His age gives the role a world-weary rage — he’s the loyal company man nearing retirement, passed over one last time for the job he wants in favor of the younger Malcolm (Harry Melling).
When the three witches whisper visions of destiny in his ear, and the King (Brendan Gleeson) just happens to stop for the night at Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth schemes to murder the King and take the throne. Many productions have positioned Lady Macbeth as the true power of the couple, but this “Macbeth” presents them as a joint partnership. He does the deed; she covers for him afterward.
Washington delivers most of his lines in a hoarse whisper that draws the listener in, while McDormand speaks volumes with a flick of her eyes. The uniformly excellent cast also includes Stephen Root as the babbling, hilarious Porter, a rare note of levity in the ominous production, and Corey Hawkins plays Macduff, Macbeth’s rival, with restrained dignity. But the performance that haunts is Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three witches with an unsettling physicality, contorting her body like a scuttling spider.
There have been many versions of “Macbeth” on screen over the years, but this version feels very suited to the moment, when the world feels unmoored, institutions seem fragile, and we all, to quote Macbeth, “float on a wild and violent sea.” This is Shakespeare done impolitely and unforgettably.