Ghost Light (2019)
There’s a cliché that Shakespeare is the most adapted playwright in the world and, like many clichés, it’s probably true. His work has been transposed in multiple languages and across multiple platforms, inspiring new interpretations on stage, in art, in print, and on the screen. He’s also a remarkably meta-narrational playwright: his plays invite commentary on theater as theater (or cinema), integrating plays within plays, actors playing multiple roles (and referencing the roles they’re playing), and self-referentiality. Ghost Light, from director John Stimpson, plays further with Shakespearean meta, as he brings in traditions and superstitions to interact with the story of an acting troupe putting on the most ill-fated of the Bard’s plays.
Ghost Light utilizes the curse surrounding performances of Macbeth – excuse me, The Scottish Play – as a Shakespearean troupe arrive to perform the play in a charming Massachusetts village and find themselves in the midst of ghostly, horrific happenings. The troupe is complete with character types: a former soap actor and all-around ham leading man Alex (Cary Elwes, having the time of his life), his wife and Lady Macbeth Liz (Shannyn Sossamon), Thomas (Tom Riley) a jealous second-lead/understudy playing Banquo, the long-suffering director Henry (Roger Bart), and a deliriously extreme fading dame of the theater Madeline (Carol Kane). Thomas and Liz tempt fate and the theater gods when they invoke the play’s curse by shouting “Macbeth!” in the empty theater. With some very Shakespearean theatrics from nature, the curse begins to take hold and transform the relationships of the members of the troupe into the play itself.
Ghost Light takes a little while to find its feet, summoning a sense of menace from the start but with little initial payoff. The characters are certainly types—they’re meant to be, especially as they begin to morph into their own versions of their Shakespearean roles. The film draws together elements of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and not just surrounding Macbeth: the presence of the stage’s “ghost light,” the use of the phrase “break a leg” rather than “good luck,” the various contortions that one has to go through to break the curse of the Scottish Play. Ghost Light occasionally veers too far into the silliness of its premise and undercuts the elements of menace that both the play and its own plot conjure. At the same time, the film does pay off its premise, and the final act is a fantastically entertaining, horror-laden farce that brings all the elements of the narrative together.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most humorless tragedies, so it’s interesting that it has also been the one most often adapted into a black comedy. Ghost Light shares the stage with Scotland, PA, another story about Macbeth in the North American countryside. But where Scotland, PA adapted the story, Ghost Light adds another layer, making the superstitions that surround Macbeth are as important as the play itself. This means that the characters are fully aware they’re beginning to embody their parts—there are lines in which characters acknowledge that they’re acting like their on-stage roles and seem incapable of breaking out of the cycle. As a result, though, some of the minor parts unfortunately get left by the side in favor of the central narrative of Tom and Liz. But all the actors are game for their roles, enjoying the Shakespeare, both good and bad, that they get to perform.
The film does occasionally slip into the hokey and predictable, particularly at the beginning and before the final act transition to the night of the performance. Luckily, the final show is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget some of the hokeyness and simply indulge in the slightly blood and very clever fun. After all, Shakespeare himself wasn’t above some amateur theatrics.
Ghost Light will drop on VOD on June 18.