According to the movie site IMDb.com, there have been 1,675 movies and TV shows based on the works of William Shakespeare and another 45 in some form of preproduction—the most of any writer in history. To put those numbers in perspective, the person behind Shakespeare in second place, Charles Dickens, has a total of 454 past projects plus three upcoming, well over 2.5 times less than the Bard.
As far as movies featuring Shakespeare as a character, there are 38 thus far, the most notable being “Shakespeare in Love,” arguably the most overrated Best Picture Oscar winner in history.
On the shelf for over two years, “The Scottish Play” is unlike any other Shakespeare movie ever made. It’s not an adaptation, but rather a story about a stage troupe in the planning phase of a “Macbeth” revival in modern-day Massachusetts.
At the first table reading, greenhorn director Adam (Peter Mark Kendall) tells his cast that he in no way subscribes to the “Macbeth” curse. The curse? Unless it is during a performance or formal rehearsal, the name “Macbeth” must not be spoken. You either say “Macb,” “Mackers,” or—“the Scottish play.”
This “curse” does have some level of validity. And if someone fails to adhere to this basic, simple rule, they will almost certainly be met with some type of mishap or misfortune.
For the acid-tongued, can’t-be-bothered stage manager Lauren (Ali Ahn), Adam’s proclamation is barely acknowledged. But this isn’t the case for grizzled vets Hugh (Benny Hill doppelgänger Geraint Wyn Davies) and Sydney (Tina Benko), cast as the doomed married characters.
The full-of-himself Hugh and the world-weary Sydney go back decades, and each have been around the block more than either would like to admit. While Hugh never left the way-off-off-Broadway B-circuit, Sydney was plucked for stardom by the Hollywood machine only to be, as Hugh so indelicately puts it, “chewed up and spit out.” Sydney is “returning to her roots” but not on the terms she’d like.
As the rehearsal process progresses, unfortunate things do start to occur. And had this been the entirety of the narrative, the film would have ended up being an interesting yet likely ephemeral curio, but writer-director Keith Boynton adds on a few more layers, transforming it into an unforgettable example of experimental filmmaking.
In the lesser of these two subplots, three of the principal characters oh-so-subtly flirt with their co-workers, which could lead to a love triangle. The dialogue and body language are provocative without being remotely explicit, and sophisticated without projecting artsy elitism. All too often, modern movies treat romantic entanglements as blunt objects absent of any hint of finesse or decorum.
A Mystery Man
The second plot point: After three nights of seeing a shadowy figure darting in and out of a garden outside her hotel room, Sydney dons a robe and decides to investigate further. The man she encounters is not a lurker or deviant, but rather a smiling, engaging man in period dress with well-manicured hair both above and on his face. He speaks only in verse and, within seconds, Sydney is thoroughly disarmed, smitten, and returns his charms in iambic pentameter.
He (Will Brill) identifies himself as Will, the ghost of Shakespeare, and he exhibits no signs of danger, mental instability, charlatanism, or romantic designs on Sydney; he’s the perfect gentleman. When Sydney tells him that he’s the most popular, most adapted playwright in history, he responds with surprise, thinking that person would have been either (Christopher) Marlowe or (Ben) Jonson.
After her second encounter with the mystery man, Sydney tells Adam that she thinks Will is the genuine article. He responds with some gentle, there-there patronizing and writes it off to stress. His attitude changes when she gives him Will’s rewrites of the play.
Adam is impressed with what he thinks are her writing talents, but when she insists that these new additions to the play (which Will states was not “his best”) were written by Shakespeare, he calls her out and believes she’s losing her mind. He’s also a purist and has no intention of augmenting the production with the rewrites.
This film is a tremendous example of the fluid nature regarding creativity as it applies to performance arts. There have been many adaptations of “Macbeth” set in modern times, and most are quite good, offering testament to its staying power and universal application.
How Boynton wraps it all up and leaves the viewer with the feeling they’ve just shared an overlooked ancient book with an old friend makes it as welcoming as those slippers beneath your nightstand.
‘The Scottish Play’
Director: Keith Boynton
Stars: Tina Benko, Peter Mark Kendall, Will Brill, Ali Ahn, Geraint Wyn Davies
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Dec. 6, 2022
Rating: 5 out of 5