‘A post-menopausal Macbeth’: Joel Coen on tackling Shakespeare with Frances McDormand

The writer-director talks about his new film, co-starring Denzel Washington, and reveals how it felt to work without his brother, Ethan, for the first time in nearly 40 years

It might be the unlucky play for British theatre rep types. But for movie directors, Macbeth has been a talisman, a fascinating and liberating challenge – for Akira Kurosawa, with his version, Throne of Blood; for Roman Polanski; and for Justin Kurzel. Even Orson Welles’s once-scorned movie version from 1948, with its quaint Scottish accents, is admired today for its lo-fi energy.

Now, Joel Coen, the co-creator of masterpieces such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men, has directed a starkly brilliant version entitled The Tragedy of Macbeth, shot in high-contrast black and white, an eerie nightmare of clarity and purity, with Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand (Coen’s wife) as Lady Macbeth.

Intriguingly, Coen came to this demanding film project without his brother and longtime collaborator, Ethan, working solo for the first time in nearly 40 years.

I meet up with Coen in the library of a boutique hotel in central London, where he is snuffling his way through a little pack of tissues – due to a cold, he was quick to establish, not Covid. It is the second time we have met. The first was in 2004, after the Cannes premiere of the Coens’ interesting if flawed remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. He told me about his British grandfather, Victor Coen, a barrister in the London Inns of Court, who retired to Hove, on the East Sussex coast, where young Ethan and Joel used to go on visits.

How did he come to Macbeth? The answer is: via McDormand. “At one time, Fran was not considered right for Shakespeare by the New York theatre community,” says Coen. “That changed at a certain point. She asked me if I would direct Macbeth on stage and I said I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do. So she went ahead and did it anyway. It was seven or eight years ago in San Francisco, playing Lady Macbeth with Conleth Hill” – that is, the Olivier-winning Northern Irish actor from Game of Thrones – “directed by Dan Sullivan, who is excellent. I told her it was something that I could get my head around as a movie.”

Coen has never made any formal study of Shakespeare, but he worked with an old friend, the Shakespeare scholar Hanford Woods from Dawson College in Montreal. “I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare and seen a lot of adaptations, a lot of the Oliviers and Welles’s Chimes at Midnight.” A key influence was Trevor Nunn’s 1979 staging of Macbeth for the RSC, with the young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench – it is available on YouTube.

Joel Coen, Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington at the opening night screening of The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Joel Coen, Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington at the opening night screening of The Tragedy of Macbeth. Photograph: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

His main concern was boiling down the text without reducing its identity. “I wanted to do Shakespeare for people who don’t want to see Shakespeare, or who might even be intimidated by it. But I wanted to preserve the power of the text, because that’s the melody of the thing – and I wanted to figure out how to get the rhythm that goes relentlessly through the whole thing like a murder movie.”

Macbeth, he says, is the first movie thriller. “It’s amazing how this play prefigures 20th-century pulp noir tropes.” Could it be that this Macbeth is like the Coens’ black-and-white noir thriller, The Man Who Wasn’t There? He is cautious: “That was about a barber and this is about kings and queens.”

I tell him that I love the toughly modern line readings he encouraged from his cast, particularly the exchange between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when they are tensely imagining what could go wrong:

Macbeth: “If we should fail?”

Lady Macbeth: “We fail?”

In reply to Washington’s agonised tension, McDormand turns the question mark at the end of her line into an exclamation point so her reply has an aggressive energy. Joel laughs: “Yes, that’s Fran! That’s what she brought to it. Her Lady Macbeth says: ‘We fail? OK, so we fail! Big fucking deal! That’s life!’”

He also reveals he made one tiny change to Shakespeare’s lines, which I hadn’t noticed, relating to the eternal mystery of the Macbeths’ childlessness. “This is a post-menopausal Macbeth. Macbeth originally says to her: ‘Bring forth men-children only / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.’ We changed it so Denzel says ‘should have composed nothing but males’. They are an older couple, past childbearing age. Time, mortality and the future are vital themes.”

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Photograph: Alison Rosa/Courtesy of Apple

But what about tackling all this without Ethan? “Very strange. I missed him. That’s the bottom line. Of course I missed him. I’ve worked with him for over 35 years, and if ever there was a problem on set we would look at each other first. But this isn’t a movie that would have interested him. I had a personal interest in it and he didn’t.” And is it a permanent split? “Look, here’s the thing. When we started working together, we never asked ourselves if this was permanent, and we don’t think about this in that way, either. We just thought we should do some different things for a while. But I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I’m in my late 60s. Hopefully, I can do this for a while – but who the fuck knows?” He gives a wheezing laugh.

Meanwhile, Coen is relishing the pause that the lockdown brought, despite the initial panic, when the production had to be shut down in the middle of principal photography and there were worries about getting the cast back to finish work on sound stages in Los Angeles that would have to be dismantled at some point. But it gave him the leisure to complete the editing at his own pace.

Did he use the solitude of lockdown to contemplate himself? “No!” he laughs. “I am completely uninterested in any part of myself that I didn’t know before; I just wanted to cut the movie and it was business as usual.” He has no plans to do Shakespeare again; he is just happy to see the result on the cinema screen. “It was fabulous to do once. It’s been gratifying. Really gratifying to see something with a big audience!”

• The Tragedy of Macbeth is in UK cinemas from 26 Decembers andon Apple TV+ from 14 January


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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