This particular instalment of my irregular series of posts on books that bear special memories for me is a bit of a cheat. A stretching of definitions to breaking point, if you will. I’m not actually writing about a book, you see. I’m writing about a play and not even the script or a stage performance. I’m writing about a film of a play.
To really get a sense of the time and the place of this one, you have to imagine yourself back in the early 1980s. It was the time of Duran Duran, the Eurythmics and Culture Club, the era of Magnum,
and the A-Team. If you were around then, you were probably wearing ripped sweatshirts, shoulder pads or even the dreaded stretch pinstripe jeans. I say “you” were probably wearing these as I was stuck in a small, country boarding school wearing a tweed jacket and a shirt and tie six days of the week. Dallas
And in the midst of the light and frothy pop culture that had emerged from the gloom and doom of the recessionary ‘70s, our English teacher, let’s call him Mr Chicken (as he had a twitch reminiscent of a chicken pecking at the ground as well as a faint whiff of fried chicken about him), had just about recovered from introducing our class of 14-year olds to Shakespeare through a reading of Twelfth Night.
To be honest, it hadn’t gone all that well, although even now, having never read it again since that time, I can still recite the first few lines. In any case, it had proved not to be the kind of fare that was going to get our class of teenage boys hooked on Shakespeare.
Mr Chicken was a pretty good teacher and a supportive and kindly man. He loved literature and obviously wanted us to appreciate Shakespeare at least a little and preferably enough to get us decent grades in our English Literature O-level.
So, one morning we trooped in to our English classroom to see that a TV and video had been set up. It was not unheard of to get to watch a TV programme of film in class, although it was pretty rare and usually seen as a chance to have a snooze. As such, it was a happy form of boys that settled into their chairs.
The classroom lights were turned off and the TV turned on. We saw a beach and witches digging a hole in the sand and burying a man’s arm. Soon after, we got a scene in which a naked young witch beckons a man into a hovel in which there are a whole host of naked witches.
It was, of course, Polanski’s version of Macbeth. From this provocative start, we got huges slabs of the macabre, of gore and, yes, THAT scene. Lady Macbeth’s naked sleepwalking scene. From the first few minutes, we were hooked. Let’s face it, nudity, violence and mayhem – exactly what you want to put in a film to grab the attention of the average teenage boy.
It was Mr Chicken’s master-stroke. Over the next few weeks, we finished watching the film and then read the play in class. We didn’t just read it, discuss it and enjoy it, we got it. Shakespeare would never be the same again.
I’ve not come across a performance or film of a Shakespeare play that has had the same lasting impact as Macbeth, although seeing Ian McKellen in Richard III at the National Theatre came close and, after all this time and having read many more of the plays, Macbeth is still my favourite. I have absolutely no idea whether I would have got into Shakespeare after the failed Twelfth Night experiment if the next attempt had been Othello, Romeo and Juliet or one of the histories. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that, thanks to Mr Chicken’s brainwave.