Macbeth: Sir Kenneth Branagh

Rating ★★★★

JOINT DIRECTOR : Kenneth Branagh
JOINT DIRECTOR: Rob Ashford
LIGHTING: Neil Austin

MACBETH: MANCHESTER INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL

  • Venue: St Peter's Church, Ancoats, Manchester
  • Producer: Manchester International Festival
  • Designer: Christopher Oram
  • Large-scale productions of Macbeth rarely work: the best are intimate. Gielgud told us (from experience) that if you try in any way to be spectacular then you’ll usually find trouble. This is a story that simply can’t be performed as a piece of realism.

  • Kenneth Branagh has clearly absorbed the lesson in his production for MIF (co-directed with Rob Ashford) at Hallé St Peter’s, an intimate deconsecrated church in an industrialised suburb of the city. The play is performed in extreme traverse configuration within the nave, transept and chancel.

Sir Kenneth focuses on a few central themes and explores them thoroughly. Rarely has Church been nearer to State: Scotland becomes a church that has been desecrated with damnation and salvation looming up close and personal.

A first for me, Macbeth kills Duncan in plain view and we also see Lady Macbeth visit the death chamber. These are bold decisions in a play where the real horrors are usually in the mind’s eye. Christopher Oram’s design makes persistent but subtle use of religious symbolism: the ambulatory is ablaze with votive candles and patrolled by what we initially assume is a nun until Alex Kingston turns and reveals herself to be Lady Macbeth. It’s a wonderful evocation of her inner conflicts.

The acoustic of the church is generally helpful. There is little need for projection and the cast handles dialogue in an almost cinematic manner while remaining on the metre. For naturalistic treatment of the verse, Branagh is matched only by the inventiveness of Rosalie Craig (Lady Macduff) whose excellence underlines shortcomings in Alex Kingston’s patchy interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Kingston is consistently outshone by a strong supporting cast and comes nowhere near illustrating her character’s powers of dissimulation and depths of cunning.

At only a shade over two hours without an interval, the piece rattles along and there is little stage business. The witches have no cauldron and their usual first entry scene has been cut. This is clearly a martial society and Branagh is immediately credible as a career soldier. He draws us into his character’s self-loathing and regrets, notably when hinting that even he is ashamed to tell Banquo’s murderers that they must also kill Fleance.

Less is definitely more with the witches, as the directors buck the current trend of having the weird sisters visible throughout. Their appearances (often from lancet windows) while convulsed with seizures are terrifying. With no special effects they orchestrate a show of kings for the horrified Macbeth that you feel might really stretch out to the crack of doom.

Like Simon Russell Beale, Branagh has the rare ability to transform the tempo of an entire production in a second, doing so with a “To-morrow, and to-morrow” that shifts a generally brisk treatment of the play to mood of profound introspection and despair. (Exchanges between the physician and a gentlewoman as they observe Lady Macbeth sleepwalking should have had the same atmosphere but are unaccountably rushed.)

The production is a co-commission with New York's Park Avenue Armory. It will transfer to the Armory’s 55,000 sq ft drill hall next summer, a space that will surely require more expansive treatment of the battle scenes. The production at St Peter’s serves the message and spirit of the play superbly. After a ten-year gap from Shakespeare, Sir Kenneth has returned in style. This is the very opposite of a ‘concept’ piece: Branagh and Ashford make a bold choice in terms of setting, examine the text rigorously within this venue and produce a version that is as logical as it is thrilling.

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