Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play, yet one of his bloodiest. It tells the story of a Scottish warrior turned traitor, and his wife who after hearing a supernatural prophecy decide to kill the King and take his place on the throne. “Blood begets blood” and soon Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both caught in a frantic downward spiral into madness and death.
I studied Macbeth at school along with the other tragedies but it was never one of my favourites. Perhaps because of the way it was taught: sitting in a classroom reading the play line by line as if it was a novel rather than acting it on your feet as it was always intended. I also found that unlike the mournful Hamlet or the manipulated Othello, I could never quite sympathise with Macbeth. In my mind his reasoning and subsequent actions were selfish, brutal, and consumed by delusions of power. I found Lady Macbeth the same, cut from the same rotten, blood stained cloth. So when they both meet their ends in the play, I was indifferent.
That was until I saw Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth last Friday starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the title roles. Kurzel’s adaptation does not absolve the pair of any wrongdoing but he does suggest that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions do not exist in a vacuum of pure power, brutality and selfishness.
A prologue is introduced in the film showing the title characters mourning the loss of their young son; a catalyst for the choices they both make in the play. There is also the quite obvious but well hidden fact that Macbeth is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the years spent in battle at the behest of the King. This is even alluded to in the banquet scene where Lady Macbeth asks the court to excuse her husbands’ ranting’s;
“My lord is often thus, And hath been from his youth. Pray you, keep seat. The fit is momentary; upon a thought He will be well again.”
There is always a journey of experiences that lead people to choose between good and evil, and the line separating these two polar opposites, is never as clear-cut and easily recognisable as one wishes it was. You can be walking side by side with one through the fog, fall behind, and realise you are in fact holding hands with the other. In other words, “we are all capable of terrible things”.
I left the theatre with my eyes opened and my mind awakened. The entire experience was incredibly visceral and physically engaging. There were many points during the film where I found myself physically recoiling from the brutality and at others being drawn further into the inner workings of Macbeth’s mind.
The acting and directing, the cinematography, the costumes, the interpretation of the text, and the film score, which in my mind brought all the other elements together, was faultless. The film left you emotionally invested, and deeply connected to all that was going on onscreen, particularly the fates of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. My indifference to the trials and tribulations of these two, at first seemingly unlikeable characters, was replaced with a sadness and helplessness of watching two once honourable people descend into madness, murder and decay.
The film’s musical score was composed by Jed Kurzel and conducted and orchestrated by Hugh Brunt, featuring prominent solos from Robert Ames, Daniel Pioro, Clare O’Connell, Max Bailie, and Louise Morgan; all of the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO). Speaking of the film score, Kurzel said his “focus was very much on the landscape where the music is born out of this cursed environment. I was after something ancient and timeless, but very modern in its’ approach.”
The landscape of the wild and unforgiving Scottish hills, lakes and tempestuous weather is as much a part of Macbeth’s violent unraveling as the story is. Kurzel’s musical score is full of droning, shuddering and scraping strings, which all have an undercurrent of what I can only describe as queasy, twisted violins running throughout; perhaps a symbol for the madness and twisted reasoning that engulfs the characters.
The score is timeless because it blends old and new, organic and synthetic into its’ musical fabric. The traditional elements of Scottish and Appalachian music give the musical soundscape a ghostly and melancholy texture. The contemporary elements; the synthesizers, effects and percussion give the score an atmospheric quality such as in the menacing and gritty ‘Turn Hell Hound’ near the end of the score.
If there are two musical pieces that act as a before and an after photograph of not only Macbeth’s state of mind but also of a forewarning of where the cards will ultimately fall in the play for all the characters, it is the ‘First and Second Apparitions’.
The ‘First Apparition’ is lighter, giving a sense of space and freedom; at this point Macbeth has the freedom to follow the prophecy or to cast it aside. The strings though shaky do not have that queasy or twisted aspect to them.
The ‘Second Apparition’ is markedly different. The atmosphere and mood is heavy, with the understanding that things are already in motion and the freedom that was once there is now long departed. The pace is altogether slower; the strings scrape over one another and that queasy aspect is now in full flow. There is a deep, pulsating undercurrent of cellos and bass near the end of the piece, signifying a further descent into evil with the killing of Macduff’s family. There is also a hidden thread of sadness to the piece, which is picked up later in the score, and when accompanied with the film, you are able to clearly see that Macbeth is not a happy nor a triumphant King but rather a broken shell of what he once was.
‘Spot’, the desperate and frenzied piece therefore is Lady Macbeth’s after photograph. With the high-pitched strings that repeat over and over, and the oddly soothing yet heartbreaking cello accompaniment put you side by side with her as she falls quietly into overwhelming grief and guilt, and her ultimate end.
The title piece of the score is my favourite because it complements the film and Fassbender’s performance so beautifully. The rest of the soundtrack, though has Macbeth’s actions at the forefront, is there to narrate the play and the other characters stories as well as the environment in which it is set, where as this piece has the entirety of Macbeth’s emotional and musical fingerprint on it. His journey, his connection to the landscape, his inner turmoil, the brutality and violence he exerts, his PTSD, his lust for power, his loss, and even his love for his wife and child as well as his flickers of conscience. Like the ‘Second Apparition’, listening to Macbeth is watching his whole world fall apart; much of it is own doing and being completely powerless to stop it.
Critics read Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as individuals consumed by power, but after seeing the film, re-reading the play and listening to the score, I am not convinced that power ever touches them. Yes, he is crowned King but that is purely superficial and not the power he is wanting. The entirety of the play seems to be a desperate power-grabbing bid of both of them to fill the gaping and ragged void that the death of their child and his long years in battle have left open. The power they seem to be desperately longing for is the power to control and alter their fates.
As with all film scores, Jed Kurzel’s composition brings depth, emotion and beautiful yet melancholy instrumentals and aural landmarks to Macbeth but it does something else, something which I am unable to put into words. The film and its’ accompanying score is one of the same; one cannot exist in the same way without the other. It would be like Shakespeare having created Macbeth but not Lady Macbeth; one needs the other to live. Not dissimilar to Macbeth’s psychoses needing the vast and wild Scottish landscape and the landscape needing him return. You cannot have a heart without its’ soul. Therefore you cannot have Macbeth without Kurzel’s score.
Macbeth is out now from Decca
You can read more from Emily at her blog.