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The Scottish Play (The Olivier Way)

Feb 9, 2013
Originally published on February 9, 2013 12:11 pm

Laurence Olivier, whose interpretations of Shakespeare's signature roles were often considered definitive, adapted several of those roles for film. He wrote and directed widely praised versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III.

Olivier hoped to bring a fourth Shakespeare play to the big screen: Macbeth. The great actor and director wrote the screenplay, but couldn't raise the money to make the film. The screenplay was soon forgotten and thought lost — until recently. Jennifer Barnes, a university lecturer from the U.K., found Olivier's adaptations at the British Library.

Barnes spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about her unexpected discovery, and what Olivier's take on "the Scottish play" can tell us about his interpretation of the Bard in general.


Interview Highlights

What Barnes noticed in Olivier's drafts

"They're so interesting on so many levels. Olivier, when he filmed Hamlet in 1948, he talked then about his desire to make Macbeth. He talked about envisioning a 'blood-bolted and murky production.' And the screenplay certainly suggests a film that would have conformed to that vision; it's very misty and gray and watery, but immediately this is shot through with blood, so you have a very kind of gray-and-red landscape."

On Olivier's surprising dramatic liberties

"I think one of the most significant cuts is the dagger soliloquy, which I think everybody would expect to be included in this film. It's cut in half, so we have half of this soliloquy. And during that time, while Olivier/Macbeth is describing 'withered murder pacing towards Duncan,' the image we see is actually of Lady Macbeth wresting the daggers from Duncan's grooms. So while Lady Macbeth is not guilty of Duncan's murder, she is certainly much more visually implicated in it than Macbeth himself."

On the dark superstitions about 'the Scottish play'

"It's got very dark associations. ... You have to say 'the Scottish play' [if you're in a theater]. But hopefully in this instance, Macbeth has come back in a very positive way and will be able to tell us something very positive about Olivier and the impact he's had on cultural memories of Shakespeare. Hopefully."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sir Laurence Olivier, whose interpretation of Shakespeare's signature roles were often considered definitive, often adapted these roles for films. And here he is as the doomed prince of Denmark.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PLAY, "HAMLET")

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (as Hamlet) For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

SIMON: Lord Laurence Olivier hoped to bring a fourth Shakespeare play to the big screen - I'm going to be careful now. I'm going to utter the word "Macbeth." The great actor and director wrote the screenplay but he couldn't raise the money to make the film. The screenplay was soon forgotten and thought lost until recently. Jennifer Barnes, a university lecturer from the U.K., found Olivier's adaptations at the British Library. She joins me now from the BBC in Exeter. Thanks so much.

JENNIFER BARNES: Thank you.

SIMON: What do you notice when you read them?

BARNES: Well, they're so interesting on so many levels. Olivier, when he filmed "Hamlet" in 1948, he talked then about his desire to make "Macbeth." And he talked about envisioning a blood-bolted and murky production. And the screenplay certainly suggests a film that would have conformed to that vision. It's very misty and gray and watery, but immediately this is shot through with blood, so you have a very kind of gray and red landscape.

SIMON: In the drafts that you have read, did Lord Olivier, as some great directors have been known to do, take many liberties with Shakespeare?

BARNES: I think one of the most significant cuts is the dagger soliloquy, which I think everybody would expect to be included in this film.

SIMON: I tell you what - to remind people, let's have a great actor, Sir Patrick Stewart, perform a bit of that soliloquy.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MACBETH")

PATRICK STEWART: (as Macbeth) Is this a dagger, which I see before me? The handle to warm my hand. Come, let me clutch thee.

SIMON: And in Lord Olivier's version?

BARNES: Well, it's cut in half, so we have half of this soliloquy. And during that time, while Olivier/Macbeth is describing withered murder pacing towards Duncan, the image that we see is actually of Lady Macbeth wresting the daggers from Duncan's grooms. So, while Lady Macbeth is not guilty of Duncan's murder, she is certainly much more visually implicated in it than Macbeth himself.

SIMON: "Macbeth" - there, I said it again - has a kind of dark history in the theater, doesn't it?

BARNES: Yes, it does. It's got very dark associations.

SIMON: You are not supposed to say the name I just uttered inside a theater, and I have got to tell you, I don't feel great about saying it inside a radio studio.

BARNES: You have to say "the Scottish play." But hopefully in this instance, "Macbeth" has come back in a very positive way and will be able to tell us something very positive about Olivier and the impact he's had on cultural memories of Shakespeare, hopefully.

SIMON: Jennifer Barnes, who is the finder of Sir Laurence Olivier's screenplay of "Macbeth," joined us from the BBC in Exeter. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARNES: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.