PBS Presents Sir Patrick Stewart In “The Scottish Play”

Patrick Stewart first did Hamlet for PBS last spring and now he will star as the lead in Macbeth. The Shakespearean classic was first done on Broadway last year and is directed by Rupert Goold. On October 6, PBS stations nationwide present Macbeth. Check your local schedules for times and possible alternative dates.

QUESTION: Since it appears that both of the productions, Hamlet and Macbeth, are shifted out of their original time frames — and of course, this is TV — has the text been altered either for time or to adapt to the fact that you’re not doing medieval Denmark or ancient Scotland?

SIR PATRICK STEWART: Yes, there were cuts that were made in the stage productions. In neither case did we play anything like the full text, certainly not of Hamlet. I think about a thousand words were cut from Hamlet in the original stage production. In Macbeth we made some subtle changes, such as “sword” was changed to “blade.” And I did cut one line about my curled hair standing on end in Macbeth (laughter) because clearly that was going to induce the wrong sort of response.

There is a line that had never been in the stage production of Macbeth — right at the very end of the play, Macbeth says to Macduff, “Before my body I throw my warlike shield.” Well, we didn’t have warlike shields in our production, so we cut the line. But somehow the line made its way into the screenplay. So I thought it was a good line and therefore came up with an idea of how, in this modern context, I could say the line and not have it seem contradictory. I’m slightly ashamed and shocked at the gesture that I did [to make it work]. But PBS are going to have to live with that reality nevertheless. So minimal changes were made.

QUESTION: The historic myths, curses, and taboos associated with the Scottish play, did they carry over into the making of the film?

STEWART: No. (Laughter.) No. In fact, I received the letter about my honor on the second day of filming of Macbeth, and I took this as a good omen. (Laughter.) The only downside of that was that you are also sworn to secrecy. So I couldn’t rush on the set and tell all of my colleagues. I just grinned stupidly and inexplicably all day. There are good reasons why Macbeth is thought to be an unlucky play. And when we were doing it on the stage, there were many examples of this. Most of the action of Macbeth happens at night, which means that the stage is dark and, even more importantly, the wings, the spaces behind the stage, are black. These days it has become customary for all backstage crew, stage management, stage staff, and so on also wear black clothes. And there were numerous occasions when I would exit the stage into complete blackness, and in those conditions accidents happen. My son played Macbeth and badly cut his head open by walking into a piece of scenery he couldn’t see. And then, like Hamlet, a very dangerous fight happens in the last minutes of the play. So you’re already exhausted by the day’s work or the evening’s work, and then you have to do a sword fight as well. And accidents happen during those times.

I think these are largely the circumstances that attribute to it being thought of as an unlucky play. But if you should ever find yourself in the situation where — for example, we are superstitious. We always refer in the theater to the play as “the Scottish play” and never give it its name. But if you should make the horrible mistake of quoting from the play, which is supposed to be the worst bad luck of all, there is an antidote to that. And classical theater superstition has it that as Macbeth has woven through it secretly all kinds of dark and wicked runes, that the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream has the opposite. It has the good, beneficial, loving aspects of it too. So if you quote Macbeth, you then quote A Midsummer Night’s Dream after it, and all will be well. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Both Macbeth and Hamlet, as shows you’ve done on stage and you’ve had to project to the back row and now you’re doing it on TV, are there ways that you then change your performance, both visually and vocally?

STEWART: This year has been rich because of these experiences. Apart from the fact that I spent the first seven months in the company of Sir Ian McKellen, in fact, sharing a dressing room with him while we were doing Waiting for Godot in England, we also had the opportunity to film Hamlet in the summer and Macbeth quite recently. In both cases, we had the entire original company. Not a single actor was replaced. Everyone came back to do the movie. So we had that entire ensemble of actors who had not only worked together for between a year and two years, but had performed the play many, many times. And some of us had been performing Shakespeare for some years too. So there was an intimacy with the play, with the language, which it’s almost impossible to get under any other circumstances.

We did Macbeth 175 times in New York last year. And eight times a week you develop a very personal, very private relationship with the play, the role, and the language. So when someone puts you in front of a camera and says, “Action,” you have a huge head start on most film projects in that the material is inside us, so accessible, so available that all that is really necessary is to think and speak. And one of the things that I’ve always loved about film acting is that a camera photographs thoughts. Now, that can’t happen on stage. Thoughts have to be communicated in other ways. But the finest film acting, those heroes and role models of mine in cinema, are those who make their thinking visible. And we had that huge advantage when we came to do both of these productions. And to be in a situation where I could spend half the year doing Samuel Beckett and the rest of the year filming two great tragedies for PBS and BBC is almost unprecedented and one that I’m immensely grateful for.

QUESTION: I was wondering, is it more fun to play Shakespeare outside of the time period it is written for in more modern dress or when it’s done in more traditional terms?

STEWART: It really is, yes [to play it outside of the period], and I can’t think when I last did a Shakespeare — oh, yes, I can, Antony and Cleopatra. I did it four years ago, and we set that rigorously in its Egyptian and Roman time period. And although there have been many modern dress versions of Antony and Cleopatra, I can’t now see an interpretation that I might give that could be removed from its historical content, apart from which I look great in Roman costumes. Good legs. (Laughing.) It’s all about the legs, and much nicer than wearing trousers and things.

QUESTION: There are people who consider the arts to be very important and are dismissive of, or bothered by, the strong cultural influences of popular entertainment, movies, television, some of the same kinds of things that you’ve done. I’m curious about your thoughts about that in terms of sort of an arts versus popular entertainment kind of tension? Does that make sense?

STEWART: Yes, it does. In the U.K., I don’t think you find that very much. One of the things that took me by surprise when I came to live and work in Hollywood was the rebuttal of what I’d always believed was that I was coming to a completely democratic society, which did not have a hierarchy. What I found when I arrived in Hollywood was that it had a more carefully and elaborately structured hierarchy than I had ever known in my life. And shooting a syndicated science fiction drama series put me way down the rung of that ladder.

In England, that couldn’t have happened. In England, we just work, and there is no distinction drawn whether you are doing a radio play or a guest role in a television series or you are working for the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre or you are appearing in the commercial West End or you are in a regional theater. You are working. And there is no pejorative aspect of any of that work. That’s what I didn’t find when I came to Hollywood.

However, there are aspects of popular contemporary entertainment — and I’m thinking here particularly of the huge influx of reality shows — that I find deeply dismaying and discouraging. So I struggle a bit with that. There’s just so much of it, and there’s so much else that doesn’t get done, but luckily there are companies like PBS who make sure that high-quality art of all kinds gets on the television screen.

QUESTION: But now for the most important question that everyone wants to know. What do you think of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek?

STEWART: I loved it; I think it’s really great entertainment. I took my grandchildren, and I think I probably enjoyed it more than they did.

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