Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Macbeth

CBC School Broadcasts Department released a five-part production of Macbeth
Sean Connery and William Needles in CBC's production of Macbeth

 

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In 1961 the CBC School Broadcasts Department released a five-part production of Macbeth aimed at senior high school students. The parts aired on November 30th, and December 5th, 7th, 12th, and 14th.  Adapted and directed by Paul Almond, the televised production notably starred Sean Connery in his first North American role, as well as his first time starring as a central character in a Shakespearean production of any kind. Additionally, the production featured many veritable Canadian theatrical giants, such as Powys Thomas and William Needles, and alumni of the still burgeoning Stratford Festival of Canada, including Zoe Caldwell, Max Helpman, Robin Gammell and Eric Christmas. The production was later cut down into a 90-minute episode and re-aired in 1962 as a part of the CBC series Festival.

The 1961 full-length series featured dramatized excerpts of the most significant scenes from Macbeth, focusing largely on the tragic themes of the work, including superstition, murder, and morality. Combined with the surreal, oversized visual sets, the editorial cuts, costumes, and casting, reviewer Nathan Cohen, observed that the production created a “futuristic, universal and timeless” adaptation that held a great appeal to the younger generation and targeted audience (N. Cohen, Daily Star, 20 April 1962). The initial five-part production, however, stirred some controversy. Paul Almond and producer Fritz Weaver were criticized for “modishly” interpreting the play––cutting out famous scenes, entire characters and changing the traditional dramatics associated with each character. Herbert Whittaker blamed the CBC for placing the interests of its teenage audience above the interests of a quality production in using “a young handsome Macbeth and three slick chicks for witches” and a Lady Macbeth reminiscent of a comic book heroine in a low cut and slinky black dress (H. Whittaker, Globe and Mail, 1 Dec 1961).  But in hindsight, this adaptation creates a relevant discourse on the educational appeal and potential of the Bard’s work to engross a younger audience. The production stands as a notable precedent for many works that utilized modern costumings and settings to appeal to a younger audience, most recently evident in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet.

CBC School Broadcasts Department released a five-part production of Macbeth

Sean Connery and Zoe Caldwell in CBC's production

of Macbeth

Interspersed throughout the five parts of the production were interviews with significant theatrical and television personalities, including Paul Almond, Powys Thomas who played Duncan and was at the time was the Director of the National Theatre School, Mavor Moore, an actor, director, composer and playwright, and Zoe Caldwell, who played the role of Lady Macbeth in the series. These interviews, and commentary made by Paul Almond and Fritz Weaver provide fascinating insights and critical commentary into adapting Shakespearean productions for television, film, and the stage. The commentaries also reflect on Canadian theatrical traditions and Shakespeare, and the actors’ personal views regarding their roles and their personal interpretations.

Despite the production’s archival importance in documenting a period in Canadian history when the transition of Shakespeare from stage to other media was being experimented with, in its own moment it had its detractors. Reviewer B. Blackburn, for The Telegram, noted with regard to the 1962 Festival performance that “Macbeth is getting over exposed … let’s try something else.” He further criticized the CBC for making a new production aimed at school students, when a more traditional version had been made six years previously in 1955 (B. Blackburn, The Telegram, 24 April 1962). This traditionalist attitude is typical of the period, which makes this production that strove for accessibility via an interpretive approach designed to appeal to a younger audience especially groundbreaking. And the elitist criticism that attacked the production had as much to do with entrenched notions of Shakespeare as “high” culture as it did with the kinds of audiences that institutional theatre was appealing to then.

Nonetheless, the production marks one of the first unique adaptations of Shakespeare completed by the CBC: previous adaptations often stuck closely to the source material. This is especially significant since the CBC was, and continues to be, the main vehicle for broadcasting uniquely Canadian broadcasts to all parts of Canada, including more rural and northern areas that are often isolated from mainstream theatre. These initial productions, and the particular aim the CBC took at high school students, held the potential to foster an entire generation of Canadians in new ways of performing, writing, and producing Shakespeare. Finally, the production marks a key stage in the way in which Shakespearean adaptation was evolving in Canada, as it utilized a popular cast, and made a substantial effort to serve as a revolutionary educational tool for high school students, a struggle still occurring in classrooms where Shakespeare is taught across the country today.  

Danielle Van Wagner

 

Link to video excerpt 1

Link to video excerpt 2

Link to Special Topics

 


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