Theatrical & Cinematic Space

The following extract, from an essay written for the programme that accompanied Macbeth’s UK cinematic release, was written by Professor Judith Buchanan and discusses our approach to theatrical space within the film.

Early sketches of the 'Macbeth world'

Early sketches of the 'Macbeth world'

Cinematic space and theatrical space typically operate under different conventions.

Theatrical space is often licensed to configure and dissolve itself in fluid ways, becoming in that instant whatever the dramatic moment needs it to be and the actors declare it to be. In effect, theatrical space responds readily to the challenge that the Chorus figure issues to an audience at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V. He invites an audience to ‘make imaginary puissance’ and to let the theatrical event ‘on your imaginary forces work’ to make it possible to summon before their eyes, for example, the ‘vasty fields of France’. When an audience takes up this challenge to engage imaginatively in the meaning of the performance space before them, the same bare boards can be made and remade moment by moment, summoned into a specific identity by the imperatives of the drama and the audience’s own collusive engagement in making the dramatic event happen.

Cinematic space, by comparison, is usually expected to conform more closely to the logical spatial relations that shape our understanding of space in the extra-cinematic world. Part of the rules of continuity editing by which most mainstream films are made require clear and consistent spatial continuities: it is these that then govern how on-screen narrative space is navigated. The edit (how one shot proceeds to the next) ensures that the geographical relationship of playing areas is configured in mappable ways: we know what each onscreen narrative space is and how it is spatially placed in relation to other such spaces.

There is, however, nothing predetermined about how onscreen space works: its desire to be realistically organised is simply a convention. In Kit Monkman’s Macbeth, space, like so much else in this dramatic world, becomes mutable according to a more flexible set of assumptions and influences. The fictive world is partly responsive to the psychological realm, allowing Macbeth’s conviction that ‘nothing is but what is not’ to affect not only how the story progresses but also how the space in which it plays out is experienced.

The film’s drama is contained within a floating world. The world features multiple layers of playing space presented as empty rooms or wider arenas awaiting occupation. The camera roams around these, exploring the multiple architectural compartments and coming, as if by happenstance, upon dramatic moments in the playing spaces it enters. Each time it chooses the next zone for its focused investigation and moment of sustained observation, that space becomes what it needs to be as the site of the action it is hosting. Even as the detail and substance of the compartment forms, therefore, the edges of the playing space may remain suggestively unformed – a series of geometric white lines awaiting colour and design. This unformed-ness is a product of the post-production business of replacing green screen with a digitally built world. The decision to leave visible the traces of its own construction and to resist communicating a definitive sense of sealed completion, however, signals the quasi-theatrical laws by which these spaces operate. Summoned into being through the imperatives of the local dramatic moment, each scene claims only as much fully defined space as is required for that piece of action to play out. The rest is merely bare boards, or indicative construction lines, awaiting the next narrative claim on it to become what it then needs to be. As with theatrical space, therefore, no specific architectural section of the floating world has a consistent identity as a single specific venue. The same inset compartment might be Dunsinane, or Inverness, or Scone, or part of the recesses of Macbeth’s fevered imaginary world, or each of these in succession as we find our way back to it on successive visits.

Macbeth's Release


Our 100% green-screen feature-length adaptation of Macbeth is released in UK cinemas on 13th March 2018. There's a detailed description of why and how we made it here. What follows represents my more personal intention behind it and future films.

I want to make films that reignite the imaginative participation of the audience, films that celebrate theatricality, make-believe, and thrive on the viewers' co-creation of what unfolds.
There has, I feel, been a gradual shift away from our ancestral heritage – the telling of stories around the camp fire, a shared enchantment in the dark that brings to life a diversity of inner visions. We seem to be in danger of confining the role of the audience to that of spectator – or consumer.
It's as if the 21st century world mistrusts the power of the interior, human imagination. Perhaps that’s because market forces can’t monetise individual creative thought; perhaps globalisation  engenders homogeneity; and perhaps the ubiquity of the camera tends to privilege material reality ‘out there’ over the more significant – though far less marketable – imaginative life ‘in here’. 
I believe there’s an opportunity to present a new type of experience on film, one that reconnects with the origins of our storytelling arts and treats the audience as active participants in the creative endeavour.

Finding a Film Composer: a 21st Century Method.

"Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody's piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading." 

Igor Stravinsky.

Tom Wexler and I were sitting by the fire one winter’s evening in my cottage in Coxwold, opening our second bottle of wine, when the subject of the film’s music first came up. 

I knew that I wanted a score for Macbeth that would serve as a sonic signature for the film, setting an overarching mood rather than underscoring every emotional shift and I knew that I wanted the music to feel contemporary and distinct while cognisant of the play’s C17th origin. I knew what I wanted, but I hadn’t heard anything that felt close.

Twenty minutes later - thanks to Google and iTunes - we were listening excitedly to the opening bars of US composer Gregory Spear’s Requiem. I fully expected the serendipity of the moment to be broken by the next track, or to realise that the wine, and our growing enthusiasm, was amplifying its possibilities but no, it was and continued to be, perfect. 

The next day I laid down sections of the Requiem into our rough edit and, for a few weeks, I lived with it. My affection for the music and my certainty of its place in the film grew. At the same time, I became increasingly conscious of the entirely insubstantial cyber-relationship between our film and the potential composer of its music. 

Fortunately, various emails, a Skype call, and a visit to New York to meet and talk in person all breathed life into the hyperlink. Gregory was charming and erudite and interested in the project.

So, in October last year (2016) Tom Mattinson and I listened as Greg conducted a small ensemble in the beautiful auditorium of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Harlem, NYC. This recording, along with sections from the Requiem, has created a soundtrack for Macbeth which delights me. 

Nothing is but what is not: Why make a green screen Macbeth..?

In the face of the gratifying but also troubling news that he has been made Thane of Cawdor, for Macbeth, ‘nothing is/ But what is not’. In other words, the only things that now seem to have any reality to him are the things of the imagination, the unreal things. Such a world – a world in which the imaginary specifically takes precedence over the actual - proved a particularly inviting one for me as a filmmaker.

Shakespeare's genius encompasses a deft and fluid ability to weave complex poetic threads that bind together the outer material story, and the inner psychological narrative. At one moment the audience understands Macbeth’s words as an expression of material reality, at the next, as an exploration of his inner consciousness.

Cinema makes us into spectators. However much we empathise or engage, we are always watching from the outside. By changing the language and (quite literally) the perspective of cinema our Macbeth uses the screen to explore the internal territory that Shakespearean language renders so powerfully. 


A Long Gestation


In June 2015 Tom Mattinson, Judith Buchanan, and I were filmed days before we began shooting our green-screen adaptation of Macbeth. Nine months later, though still a work-in-progress, it’s now very much a ‘thing’; having developed a character and a shape and an atmosphere that were impossible to grasp back then but which seem inevitable to me now.

There’s still a lot of work to be done - the devil being in the detail - but the final version will be recognisable from its current ancestor. Value judgements will be made by others, but I can say that it is extraordinary, in that it looks and feels like nothing else. I’m increasingly impatient to show the finished film.