A Brief History of Unconventional Takes on ‘Macbeth’

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The Robot Shakespeare Company is apparently a thing that exists, and last week they released The Tragedy of Macbeth, a CGI-animated, fun-for-the-kids version of the classic Shakespeare play, complete with plain-English subtitles. As bizarre as the project, which is available in full on the RSC website, sounds, it’s not the first unconventional twist on the dark story of ambition, murder, and court intrigue. Perhaps that’s because the original play was itself an adaptation: the Bard found his inspiration in the story of Scotland’s King Macbeth, documented in the 1587 historical volume Holinshed’s Chronicles. Or maybe it’s because, like most of Shakespeare’s material, the themes of Macbeth are universal; just as it’s easy to compare Romeo and Juliet to any story of star-crossed lovers, all a Macbeth adaptation needs is a goal, a slightly disturbed protagonist, and a seriously twisted power couple. We compiled the best of Macbeth‘s unorthodox reinterpretations, from the story of a Pennsylvania burger flipper to the choose-your-own-adventure style take of an experimental theater company.

Voodoo Macbeth (1936)

Voodoo Macbeth is actually the nickname of this landmark production, staged by Orson Welles at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater in the middle of the Great Depression. Performed by the “Classic Branch” of the Works Project Administration-funded (and cringe-inducingly named) “Negro Theater Unit,” Welles’s Macbeth left the text of the play unchanged, but used costume and an all-African American cast to suggest 19th century Haiti as the setting. The famed trio of witches were depicted as practitioners of voodoo, led by a male, bullwhip-wielding version of Hecate, Queen of the Witches. Just 20 years old at the time, Welles used the highly acclaimed production to launch his career; Voodoo Macbeth ran on Broadway before embarking on a national tour. Selected scenes from the production can be viewed online in the concluding minutes of the 1937 documentary We Work Again: How the New Deal Benefits African Americans.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Rashomon and Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa tackled the Shakespearean masterwork at the height of his career, setting the drama against the backdrop of feudal Japan. The original title, Kumonosu-Jo, literally translates to “Spider Web Castle,” the not-so-subtle name of the ruling seat of the region taken over by Washizu, an ambitious samurai egged on by his wife, Asaji. Though the original plot and characters are largely preserved, there are a few twists, including a subplot involving Asaji’s pregnancy and miscarriage, and stylistic elements of Japanese Noh theater that crop up throughout the film. Washizu’s iconic death scene, which depicts his own archers turning against him during the climactic battle, was filmed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, a location Kurosawa chose himself for the rocky, barren landscape and constant fog. Throne of Blood is available on Hulu Plus through the Criterion Collection.

From a Jack to a King (1982)

When adapting Macbeth for London’s West End theater scene, British director Bob Carlton chose to change the classic play to fit its new location. From a Jack to a King turns Macbeth into a musical comedy, complete with 1960s pop-rock anthems and slang interspersed with iambic pentameter (sample line: “Oh thou that art so like Elvis, but yet art hornier…”) The protagonist is Eric Glamis — stage name Thane Cawdor — a biker/musician who sabotages his way to rock-star fame with the help of a trio of back-up singers, a sketchy manager, and his wife, Queenie, the Bitch from Hell. It’s less than subtle, but From a Jack to a King is one of the more daring genre crossovers on this list, and any play that combines the Shangri-Las and Shakespeare deserves serious creativity points. The theater community evidently thinks so, too; From a Jack to a King has had three successful runs, including a revival that toured Asia in 2010, nearly 30 years after its debut at London’s Bubble Theater.

MacHomer (1995)

Comedian and playwright Rick Miller’s one-man show follows in From Jack to a King‘s footsteps; like Carlton’s production, it’s more comedic than tragic, and intersperses Shakespeare’s original script with a few additions of his own. Miller’s twist? MacHomer tells the story of Macbeth entirely in impersonations of characters from The Simpsons, with the help of sound and video effects to supplement Miller’s performance. While Homer and Marge are the obvious choices for the play’s central characters, Miller also makes use of over 50 other voices, including energy tycoon Mr. Burns as King Duncan and good Samaritan Ned Flanders as Banquo. Since his production debuted at Montreal’s Fringe Festival, Miller has toured MacHomer for over a decade and a half, with the blessing of Simpsons creator Matt Groening. MacHomer may have even inspired “Four Great Women and a Manicure,” the 2009 Simpsons episode in which Marge schemes to land Homer the title role in Springfield’s production of the Scottish play. Upcoming tour dates and tickets are available on Miller’s website.

Rave Macbeth (2001)

“Lidia and I had broke all the rules, the only rules: peace, love, unity, and respect.” In an appropriate addendum to the ’90s, German director Klaus Knoesel chose to set his film adaptation of Macbeth in the heart of ecstasy-fueled, PLUR-touting rave culture. The result is hilariously cheesy, marrying spot-on details (graffiti-covered bathrooms, too many gel-spiked hairdos for anyone’s own good) with the story of a young drug dealer, Marcus, trying to corner the market by any means necessary. It certainly didn’t win any Oscars — in fact, it still doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page — but theater fanatics will get a kick out of this strobe-lit version of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

Scotland, PA (2001)

Before he was an aging yuppie on Girls, James Le Gros was Joe McBeth, a lowly fry cook who murders and robs his boss to buy the burger stand where he works. The Good Wife‘s Maura Tierney and Seven Psychopaths‘ Christopher Walken complete an all-star cast of character actors as Pat McBeth and Lieutenant McDuff, Joe’s wife and the vegetarian cop in hot pursuit of Norm Duncan’s murderer. Set in 1970s suburbia, Scotland, PA reinterprets Macbeth as a quirky, low-budget stoner comedy, putting a refreshingly quotidian face on a play that’s usually depicted as a high-stakes political drama. Plus, with a tag line like “Ambition, Murder, Madness… and a Side of Fries,” it’s too charming not to watch.

Macbeth: A Tragedy in Steel (2002)

A Tragedy in Steel isn’t a play, film, or even a TV show: it’s a concept album from German power-metal band Rebellion, their first full-length LP. Interspersing lengthy, ominously titled tracks like “Claws of Madness” and “Die with Harness on Your Back” and spoken passages from non-band member actors, A Tragedy in Steel puts a more literary spin on the heavy metal concept album mini-genre. Co-authored by guitarist Uwe Lulis and bassist Tomi Gottlich, A Tragedy in Steel tells Macbeth‘s story through lyrics like, “We ride all alone from the battlefield/ The rebels beaten, they had to yield/ Banquo and I, we silently ride/ Brothers in arms, side by side.” Shakespeare it’s not, but that’s what the spoken dialogue is for.

Sleep No More (2003, 2011)

Two years after its New York debut, the shock value of Sleep No More is gone, replaced by droves of tourists and a growing trend of “immersive theater” performances. Nonetheless, Punchdrunk’s confusing, inventive, and sexy take on Macbeth popularized the format for a reason: by taking over a warehouse in Chelsea and allowing audience members to move at their own pace through a richly detailed “hotel,” Sleep No More offered a dynamic, non-linear way to experience a plot most theatergoers have likely seen dozens of times before. The set and costumes recall early-20th-century film noir, starting in the Manderley Bar and sprawling out over more than 100 rooms. Strangely, there’s no dialogue; both the actors and the audience, who remain masked at all times, remain completely silent throughout the two- to three-hour performance. The show began in London; the current incarnation landed in New York in 2011. Tickets are available on Sleep No More‘s website.