They Killed for Love: Michael Lesslie in Conversation with Maan Abu Taleb

José Luis Cuevas, Macbeth, 1987. Source: 1stdibs.com

One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.

The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.

It is the tyranny of cultured folk that erects an unscalable wall between beauty and evil. It is a failure of the imagination, I believe, and a segmentation of life that does not hold. History is ripe with tyrants who have committed beautiful words along with their most heinous acts: إني أرى رؤوساً أينعت وقد حان قطافها. Nietzsche’s best writing had passages where he serenaded the wheel and other medieval torture methods. The Old Testament has passages of savage and harrowing beauty.

I am not suggesting that tyrants are poets – though they could be – nor that they deserve our sympathy. I am merely proposing that they are people, and as people, there are things to be learnt about them from great works of literature, just as we learn about motherhood, anguish, love and despair. I believe I do know a little more about Bashar al Assad through the intimacy Shakespeare affords us with Macbeth. Instead of being repeatedly shocked by the terrible crimes we’ve seen in Deir El Zour and El Ghouta, instead of wallowing in moral outrage, we can see for ourselves how “blood will have blood,” the latter usually of the innocent. We can imagine how the first Assad, in 1982, might have thought, if not necessarily articulated, that “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er,” before passing on this legacy to his child Bashar, who, along with his seed, are forever burdened with the weight of this bloody dynasty.

While this glimpse into the inner life of tyrants seems to offer sympathy over them, or at least a suspension of judgement; to give them a break from our feeble and self-righteous gaze, what it actually entails is a damning judgement over humanity as a whole. The condition of tyranny is human, all too human. We could rage against Bashar, who was slotted into his role without any apparent will on his part, but can we safely say that in his place we would’ve, or could’ve done different? Isn’t the human race set upon by itself a few times every generation by the many likes of Saddam and King Leopold?

Granted, one does not read Macbeth in order to understand Saddam. Macbeth is read and performed endlessly because it is beautiful, with all the mystery, seduction and terror that entails. It haunts us, because who hasn’t had that “thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical”, who amongst us has not “yielded to that suggestion” in one way or another. The scale is wide, but it is one. And so this beauty of Macbeth, spills back into life.

And there is plenty of this beauty in Mike Leslie and co’s adaptation of Macbeth. The first time I saw it, I was on a plane heading in or out of London. It must have been a long-haul because I watched it, and then I immediately watched it again. I was stunned by the visuals and the music, and shaken by this bold interpretation of a canonical text. I remember the goosebumps I had when Lady Macduff, tied to the stake, screams: “This Tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongue, was once thought honest.” I was moved to tears watching a crazed King Macbeth running around in his chamber, then staring into the distance, rocking in place in a stunning time-lapse, only to be transfixed a few scenes later by a tormented Lady Macbeth, losing her mind. I was hooked, and my obsession with this most troublesome of protagonists flared up once more.

In the following months, this obsession would grow more consuming, so much so that one night I came to believe that I was the accursed Thane, plotting to murder Queen Elizabeth, while feeling all the dread in the world because even if I do succeed in usurping Windsor castle, I have no children to succeed me to it. When things got out of hand like this I would set the play aside for a few weeks, only to be drawn back to read a soliloquy, or hear it delivered in Michael Fassbender’s captivating performance. His agonised posturing, his terror. Many times I planned on watching only one of Sean Harris’s several haunting scenes, only to end up watching the entire film.

When a friend of mine was telling me about some of the books he’d read recently, I complained that I had not read much because I was constantly rereading and watching Macbeth. His casual response was that someone he knew had worked on “this new Macbeth, as a writer.”

That night I googled this acquaintance of Campbell’s. And there he was on the credits. Although young, Michael Leslie had a formidable career as a scriptwriter and playwright, and now he’d topped it off with this. I was adamant I was going to meet him, and luckily enough, it was a simple affair. I wrote to him, and he wrote back. I had nothing to offer him but questions, yet he was gracious and welcoming.

In a crowded bar in Soho I sat waiting, not for long. He walked in and I recognised him immediately. His is a striking face, intense yet disarming. Though I could see it being intense and alarming if he wanted it so. He gives off an air of fierceness and genuine affability. We order drinks and it becomes clear he is more interested in talking than being interviewed.

The din in the bar did affect the quality of the recording. What also affected it was my forgetting to turn on the recorder for the first ten minutes or so. This meant that I had to transcribe from memory our discussion of one the things that baffled me the most about the film. I had started by asking him about a major departure from the etiquette of adapting Macbeth. In this adaptation, not only do Mike and his colleagues show us the murder, they also have Malcolm (King Duncan’s son) unwittingly walk into his father’s tent, only to find a murderous and bloodied Macbeth sitting there, dagger in hand. As Malcolm walks in and realises what had happened, teary-eyed and terrified, he listens to Macbeth’s cold announcement that: “The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood/ Is stopp’d; the very source of it is stopp’d.” In the play Macbeth does say these lines, but he does so the morning after, to an unsuspecting crowd. Here, with blood all over him, lying next to his victim, these lines acquire an almost unbearable intensity.

These acrobatics are all over Mike’s adaptation, and they are too many to list. In this sequence, for example, immediately following the one just mentioned, the change reveals in Macbeth’s lines new layers of meaning:

 

Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,

There’s nothing serious in mortality:

All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.

 

These lines, which in the original are also said the morning after, are now pointed at Malcolm, reducing him to “mere lees” and complicating his motives later on, as Michael explains below. At the same time this frees up the scene in which Macduff discovers the savaged body of Malcolm, which Sean Harris makes excellent use of. Through these rearrangements and omissions, the writers and the director essentially plough the lines of this play, yielding nothing less than a new interpretation of this haunting tragedy.

Maan Abu Taleb, July 2018

 

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Yesterday I was watching the film again, and I noticed for the first time the way you changed the lines in Act I Scene V, jumping from the beginning of the dialogue between Lady Macbeth and her husband, to the end of it, and then back to the middle. Somehow this resulted in a smooth conversation between the two, and revealed a much overlooked motive: they are in love.

Yes! That was absolutely the thing because there was a prior draft of the script, which I was then brought in to work on. And no disrespect to the American writers that worked on it, it was a very good script, but it was also very much a traditional take on Macbeth, Lady Macbeth being far more evil. And Justin and I thought, you got to believe this couple have come to this place. And obviously the kids’ loss is fundamental to it. But also this is a guy who hasn’t seen his wife in months, he’s been on a fucking campaign for ages, and she’s been in this weird sort of, kind of fucked, village. Essentially going out of her mind. And as a result they connect. Your partner has come back. I really wanted people to empathise with that, in order to be able to go on a journey with them.

By the way, whenever I say, ‘I’ or ‘we’, first and foremost I mean Justin Kurzel, the film’s director. There isn’t a single decision that didn’t come from or go through him – he’s truly the visionary behind it all. Especially the humanity.

That is something that struck me about the film. Because you watch Polanksi’s adaptation or Welles’, even Kurosawa’s, and you find little human connection between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Whereas in the play you do sense that connection. You even get the sense that one of Macbeth’s motives is to impress his wife.

Exactly. And that is for me, either where the tyranny/dictatorship theme comes from, or more important than it. I once went up to a writer I admire and said, I love your films, because there are no bad guys in them, and he said: Yeah, because nobody thinks that they’re a bad guy. I think that’s one of the great things about Macbeth. It is always much more human when people think they’re doing the right thing, even if they know it’s largely wrong for some people. But Macbeth thinks it’s right for his wife. He needs to reconnect with her, the kid has died and he feels there is a hole in her.

There is also intimidation. She does taunt him about his masculinity.

This is where Marion was really helpful. There is something about her that has an austerity to it, a poise. She’s amazing. Seeing her in rehearsals was fascinating, because obviously as a French speaker she must have found the verse quite hard initially, but that also created a kind of separation from it, from the world around her, and I think that led to her portrayal of the character in that slightly distant, outsider way.

But also, Lady Macbeth herself is supposed to be a foreigner, not Scottish, in some versions of the story at least.

Yes, in some versions of the story. That’s not something that we felt was necessary, but with Marion, we decided to embrace it. Justin wanted to make sure that the place they’re in at the beginning, where you see Duncan get killed, feels horrifying. She is living in this miserable village, the place where her kid died, she’s living with these ghosts, and as an outsider. She is someone who married this guy and now finds herself in this horrible place, and it kind of grounds her motivation to push them.

But there’s also a decision that you guys made, which is to effectively answer the question Chesterton posed sarcastically, but is still a valid one, I think, which is: How many Children had Lady Macbeth? You guys went for a bold answer: She had one.

Yes, and obviously that’s extrapolating from the text – you know the “I have given suck” line. It was interesting because we toyed with the idea of not opening with that. Having a flashback, and then going back to it, and it just grounds the story, and it grounds their relationship.

Another decision you made was to introduce the character of the boy, the squire, whose ghost brings Macbeth the infamous dagger, and before that, actually, when he is killed in the battle scene. Which was brilliant by the way. Battle scenes usually have excited warriors moved by a roaring speech, but the way you did it, those guys were terrified. And that’s probably how battle played out back then. Those guys were cold, hungry and terrified.

And they look like they’re boys as well. So obviously the father-son theme was running throughout. We also wanted this battle to take place towards the end of a campaign, and so these people, as you say, are exhausted and terrified. And then we see Macbeth reassuringly wrapping the hands of the squire as you called him. We wanted him to not just be a leader, but also a father to these people, in a weird way. He’s looking after them, telling them we got to go out and fucking do this. We then wanted to slam into his psychology, his interiority, during the battle sequence. It’s a really interesting thing that sort of came in the edit. We’d originally written a big battle sequence where you play it relatively real-time, and then, in the edit, we realised that actually you want to be intimate with Macbeth, you want to feel where he goes to when he suddenly sees the witch, that moment when time slows. That all came in the edit really.

But yes, on that boy you mentioned, that was another thing we wanted to focus on, and that he has seen horrific shit. He’s been at war for a long time and there’s an element of PTSD there which we could link to the young boy, which can feed into his fatherhood issues as well, and the loss of his child.

So is it that through the boy’s horror as well that you reflect Macbeth’s trauma, because in the battle scene the boy is completely terrified. Is that us looking at a version of Macbeth?

That was definitely a theme, but it also was more than that. Those themes might come off of it, and that’s great, that kind of resonance. But also, the boy is real in the battle. The boy is one of his charges, one of his squires, him then coming back to Macbeth is a sort of guilt reminding him – you know how people transfer their psychological issues – that he lost the kid. He saw this boy die, he feels responsible, the boy comes back to haunt him.

Right, would that then be another reason for him to kill Duncan?

Totally. As far as I’m concerned, and this was also always in the script, there is the sense that Duncan was separate from war, aloof from it. He doesn’t have a fucking clue what his people have been through, and what David Thewlis does with it, which I absolutely love, is that he’s genial. Because you could obviously do a version of Duncan where he is, you know, a dick. But Thewlis brings this real warmth and paternalism to it, which makes his separation from his people, his clean clothes, for example, more infuriating. He is not hardened by war.

About casting for Duncan, someone said to me you either cast someone who was Macbeth ten years ago, someone who has been a fighter, or you cast someone who is completely different. And that’s a real decision. Thewlis obviously chooses to be completely different from Macbeth, which I really like.

Again, that feeds into the tyranny and dictatorship theme. For me, any story whereby you see someone as a dictator, where you see someone as “bad”, is not that interesting.

Well it becomes a caricature of evil…

Totally, and audiences know what to think when they’re going in. I want to get under the skin of that. To me, when the ash of Burnam Wood comes to Dunsanae, and Macbeth calls “Satan”, his servant, I find that really moving. Because it is almost like he now knows that he needs recrimination, he knows that he needs this ending.

So this brings to mind a fundamental question about Macbeth: is he motivated by ambition, or is it fate? And then you introduced a new one which…

For me, it’s love.

Exactly. Which is not a motive widely discussed by critics and people who write and analyse Macbeth, at least from what criticism I’ve read.

But which is also one of the things that are really compelling about it, he goes there for love. We really wanted this dynamic where she’s pushed him there, she wants to get out, she wants to change her life, change their life, find this new space. And then they get there, and the guilt starts eating at him. The way I’ve always articulated it to myself is that she was saying: Just this one, that’s all we need to do, just this one. But then it implodes, and she watches the man she loved disappear from her, and that’s what drives her mad.

And he’s there with his guilt inducing paradigm, so when he sees her dead, it suddenly comes back to him what he’s done. I wanted both of them to have a moment of realisation that, oh I’ve lost him, or, oh, I’ve lost her, and that sort of undoes everything. That’s what spins out Lady Macbeth into going out and looking for the boy, and that’s what spins him into, lets bring the end.

But he also comes back to himself, because he becomes a fighter again. “Let us die with harness on our back.”

Exactly. We wanted it to be almost like he’s been mad, and suddenly there is a flash of sanity in him again. As if he looks around and sees where he’s got to and then goes out. It’s an interesting moment towards the end of the play where the question becomes whether he thinks he is impervious or not, and how much he believed it. Obviously, Michael made his own decisions.

I always think that there is a part of him that consciously believed it, but there is another part of him that knew he was going to his death. Maybe he thought about it thus: I’m either going to die now, or I’m going to live forever. It’s one of the two: am I a god, or a man?

Would you say that Macbeth is a didactic play? Because to me it is completely amoral.

There is a simple version of it that you could read as a moral play. But that version lacks humanity in my mind. That version has been politicised. He’s evil, okay, great.

But did that make it difficult for you? To maintain that amorality, while people, and studios I assume, want moral stories.

Well I think there is something tonally with the film that some people respond to, or they step away from it…

There were some harsh reviews of the film…

Yes, and I always thought that when you either get 5 stars or 1 star, that’s when you know you’re doing something right. And yes, people definitely found it muddier than what they would like, but for me that what’s always more interesting. Someone I worked with in theatre said this about my writing in general, “you take the side that we don’t want to empathise with and you make us empathise with it.” And yes, I think that’s always more interesting. For me, I can’t write a moral lesson. Take me on a journey with a character, and if that gives you something at the end, fine. But if it’s about what that character is going through, what they learnt, that’s what I think is interesting. And that’s what I find in Shakespeare. The plays are so personal. Even the idea of a soliloquy is personal. You’re in that person’s head. That’s why I loved it. I kept on reading through the play, and I thought: this could be a better film than a play, because it is so psychologically interior, because its about engaging with him in his head and his madness.

But then what about this argument that Macbeth is really a dramatic poem, rather than a convincing character study.

Yes, that’s interesting, I think that’s valid.

Maybe it is both, because if we want to look at it as a poem, you kept the poem intact to an extent. But another thing you guys did was that it wasn’t recited as a poem.

That’s what I meant when I said we didn’t want to do the Kenneth Branagh version. Full respect to Kenneth Branagh, of course – he’s an extraordinary talent. Just it’s a different approach.

Like when Fassbender does the “this supernatural soliciting cannot be ill cannot be good” soliloquy, he almost reads it as if it’s a paragraph of prose, and it works so well.

I find the poetry and the verse is there if you just speak it. As soon you versify in your delivery, it creates an alienation from the audience.

There is a really interesting story about this actually. Justin told me about this one direction he gave Michael at one point. You know when Macduff had just gone into Duncan’s tent and they’re about to discover the body, and Macbeth is outside, and he turns and talks to the guy with him, when they talk about how rough a night it has been. They did it in various ways, but Justin’s direction to Michael was, just do it like you’re waiting for the bus, and you’re chatting. That level of banality really grounds you. You can see it in the delivery.

In that scene it always struck me how chilled Michael looks while you, the viewer, know that all hell is about to break loose. It’s such an intense scene.

That’s one of the things that I find visceral about the play and the film, that there are always these passages when something is inevitable. Once he’s killed Duncan, for example, and he is in the lake, because the discovery of the body is inevitable. And there is this weird calm that comes about, it’s always the mirror of what happens when he’s in the battle. Also when he realises that Lady Macbeth is dead, and the whole of the army is right there, and yes, like you said, he finds himself again. It’s a centring, and playing that calmly allows the audience to get deeper into that moment. Whereas if you make him panic, you’re telling the audience what to think.

Another very tense moment, which I often find myself thinking about, is the “he hath no children” line, when Macduff is told that his wife and children have been slain. That’s a very powerful moment. In the Polanksi film, it is clear what reading of it he wanted, and that is a response to Malcolm, who is being opportunistic about Macduff’s loss, and cannot relate to his pain. Whereas it is a lot more ambiguous in your film. Can you tell me more about that?

Well, it could be many things, but I personally wanted it to be about the idea that revenge is impossible. Macduff is saying he cannot balance the scales. He’s saying he [Macbeth] has no children for me to kill. And there is also this sense of him being detached from what’s happened, and the ability to correct what’s happened, and find peace again. So to me it’s a line of outrage, but also perdition. Macduff realises how much he’s lost.

Also how alone he is and un-relatable his situation is to those around him.

How did you read it? Because, you know, anything is valid.

Well I read it in a similar way, but I also read it in the sense that Macbeth has no children, and that not only makes revenge impossible, but also means that he could do something like that because he has no children. It is also interesting in relation to Malcolm.

And Justin’s decision to bring Malcolm into the murder chamber, that was a big thing. I find that really humanises Malcolm and grounds you in his drive later on when he goes out there. But there is that intimacy between the two of them which I love, and is sort of terrifying.

So that was a big decision, and it has serious consequences for the story.

It does have a knock-on effect yes, massively. And also, this is just for me, I’m sure Justin has his take on it, but a lot of it for me is that Malcolm didn’t step up in that moment. Like Macbeth’s there, he’s covered in blood, laughing almost, then talks about the dagger and stuff and talks about how the guards did it, and it’s clearly a lie. And still Malcolm doesn’t do anything, and so Malcolm’s actions later on are all charged with this idea that “I didn’t end it when I could’ve.”

A humiliation…

Yes, an undercurrent going on. It’s interesting because there is a sense of him stepping up, I think that feeds into him right at the end, a sense of the perpetuation of violence. This guy is just as weak as the rest of us.

There are several hints of this theme of the perpetuation of violence. There is Fleance who comes in towards the end and runs away with Macbeth’s sword, and it is hinted that he will be chased by Malcolm. And then there is also this slowing down of the battle scenes, as if to highlight the eternal nature of war.

It is sort of like, you find this – and this is a bit wanky – but it’s like you find this undercurrent of truth when you go into those slow moments. It’s as if you pick this eternal space. I think there’s a poetry to that. This is what I mean by letting the visuals be the poetry and letting the poetry be the dialogue.

I was going to say something as well – also at the risk of sounding wanky – and that is, in the scene in Macbeth’s chamber, when he’s running around and there’s that beautiful time-lapse and he’s training with his sword, it is almost like a visual soliloquy.

I think so. I think that’s true, and with cinema you get to do that.

I was thinking, and this is just my opinion, that if Shakespeare were writing now, some of his works he’d write as plays, and some he’d write as films. And I think Macbeth he would’ve written as a film. Maybe I just had to convince myself of that because I adapted it, but it’s just that you’re so rooted with him, and I don’t mean rooting for him, you’re just in him, and that’s cinematic to me. I love that whole sequence when he’s running around, and the light coming through. Adam Arkapaw, the DOP, is a genius, and he gave as much character to the film as anyone. That adds a sort of grandeur to it, but also a baseness that Adam finds with the lens.

The music, as you say, as well.

Another moment, is that in the chamber, during the “Full of Scorpions is my mind dear wife”…

I love his delivery of that!

and he points a dagger towards Lady Macbeth’s stomach, and it is the first time we see him intimidating her, then he puts his hand up her dress. That’s obviously something you scripted. Was that a turning point you intended?

Well, one of the things that we put into the script in my first meeting was that she almost physically leads him. She wants to close a gap and she physically and very subtly drives the scene, touching him, and then later on you see the power dynamic reverse. She’s used to a certain control, and she’s seeing this man pulling away from her, and he starts bringing war into their relationship and being physically aggressive with her. That kind of articulates the shift that’s going on at that point.

And blames her for their childlessness?

Do I think that? I think that’s certainly an element, but I also think that there is this awareness going on: this is the situation, this is reality, and there is nothing to do about it. There is an element of blame, but he’s also blaming himself, blaming the world. There is anger, without doubt. I need to watch that scene again and see how it plays.

Again, Michael’s decision to laugh, like that, was definitely in there. But the single tear, you can’t script that, you know what I mean…

That was brilliant.

What Michael manages to do throughout is straddle this weird… There is a giddy happiness, but there is also a sense of horror at what’s going on. I think Michael nails that. That was one of the things with the execution of Lady Macduff that we wanted to bring forth. We wanted to provide an articulate moment between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth where she snaps. That was the intention behind scripting that scene, and making Macbeth do it that way, making it public. I love that it was the fire. I think Elizabeth Debicki was extraordinary.

The way she delivers that line.

Because it centres her as well, centres her character. All that “my pretty chickens”’ and all that, cool, it’s dialogue, but you want something when she’s dying. You want a moment of centring, a moral, sane centre. And you want that articulation at the moment she’s about to die. It is a voice of reason calling out. And then Macbeth on one level has to do it, he sort of set himself in motion by this.

“I am in blood, stepped in so far…”

And “The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, making the green one red.” For me, there are certain bits of text where I was like, these are key, tonally, to what goes on. Another thing about “full of scorpions is my mind” that is really interesting, and that is, it’s fucking painful. It’s a multiple of pain that I find very moving. It’s physical. So, yes, there is this sense that once it’s begun, there is just this snowballing inevitability to it, that to me is tragedy.

I also find that, in counter poise to that you have the moments of stillness with Marion, like the apparition of her son. Those moments exist almost outside that moment of inevitability. Obviously they’re consequences of it, but in terms of the rhythm, and how it was edited together – I love the editor, Chris Dickens – there is this sort of timelessness. You’re in her head and you see the boy. I love her performance in that scene.

This is not the first thing you’ve done with a Shakespeare text. You wrote A Prince of Denmark, which is a prequel to Hamlet.

No, and yes. I’m doing a film soon that is an adaptation of Hamlet, with Riz Ahmed, he’s a very articulate and politicised actor, and he’s always wanted to do a Hamlet that’s set today, in the sort of expat neighbourhoods. No. 1 Hyde Park sort of multi-millionnaire vs sweatshops out in Bow sort of community. So I’m going to do a film about that. I love Shakespeare, I’ve studied Shakespeare. I don’t always want to do Shakespeare. I’m doing a lot of other stuff. But yeah, Shakespeare has been a thing.

Taking on this film, did you feel inundated, working with such an important text, and this big cast.

Well, first and foremost the film was such a collaboration that it really felt like we were all in it together. The crew – every single department, producers, costume, art direction, camera, everyone – were amazing. So that helped. Also I had been working with Justin on an original film of mine, and Justin was working with Michael on something else. Justin’s first film was hugely successful, and the cast had made great films. So Justin was like, there is all this weight of expectation on it, and so I want to do the opposite of what people are expecting. And that speaks to me, that’s always what I want to do. So for me I was able to put pressure aside because the whole enterprise was, lets try and ignore all that and do something that feels real. Almost try to imagine it without the weight and without the history, and just tell this story.

And so when the reviews came in – we had some incredible reviews and some negative ones – I’d almost forgotten that it was this grand play that people have expectations of, because, again, if you’re going to empathise with the characters you just have to feel it as a truth unto itself rather this weight of historiography and academic scholarship.

Also the language of Macbeth has become so infused in day-to-day conversation, that people know these soliloquies, people know these lines, and they will want to hear them in a certain way, and I feel that was where a lot of the negative reviews came from. They were like, I’m used to hearing this in a certain way, and now you’ve come along and fucked it up for me.

Totally. and I’m not sure how much of that was part of Michael’s intention, but that definitely was very effective. I know that he always looks at it this way: how do I make this truthful, human? I have no idea whether he watched loads of Macbeth or didn’t watch any coming into this. My guess would be, if I were him I wouldn’t have watched any.

So you didn’t feel that you had to go back and watch some of the previous adaptations?

No. Weirdly, in the past I have seen The Throne of Blood, the Polanksi, you know, all these famous adaptations. Then I got a call to work on this film. I decided I was going to order Throne of Blood, the Polanksi, and a few others. I did order them, but I never watched any. The feeling was, let’s find our own way.