Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth: A Guest Review

Guest reviewer Abbi Roberts weighs in on Kenneth Branagh's recent return to the stage...via screen with the NT Live broadcast of the Manchester International Festival production.  

Macbeth (Kenneth Branagh) by Johan Persson
One thing’s for sure: the only person at Dunsinane who’s busier than the gravedigger is the laundry guy, and none more so than in this production.  Britain has gone Macbeth mad in recent months, with Jamie Lloyd’s production starring James McAvoy at Trafalgar Studios, and a radical one-man version at the National Theatre of Scotland starring Alan Cumming . This production at the Manchester International Festival, co-directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, makes the third retelling of the story and sees Branagh’s long-awaited return to live Shakespeare.

Unlike the other two, this production plants itself firmly in kilt and claymore territory and, as is usual for this particular play, blood and grime is integral to its aesthetic. The difference here is that designer Christopher Oram has taken the earth and grit of the blasted heath and battlefield inside the castle and into (sometimes onto) the audience. The stage is a deconsecrated Victorian church in the heart of Manchester. The audience sit, like a congregation turned inwards, either side of an aisle of spongy, splattered earth. A huge cross hangs at the alter end, a dark wall of wood (from which the witches will later emerge) stands at the other. The overall impression is of a holy place battened down and overrun with decay and darkness.

There is a raw, elemental feel to the staging. As the play starts we are confronted with rain, flashing swords and howling men, immediately putting me in mind of Branagh’s precocious and equally muddy 1989 film version of Henry V. The witches too are grimy, swivel-eyed, screeching black apparitions, displaying themselves in wooden alcoves like macabre religious icons. Candles burn on the raised alter, dripping wax tendrils onto the stones which themselves will burst into flames later. As the play progresses, darkness and dirt invade the space, slowly. The mud is joined with rain, blood, wine, vomit and tears, and clods of it are grasped and hurled into the air.

As you would expect, the earthy floor dominates everything, so much that it quite overwhelms the other themes of the play. When Macbeth becomes King, the only place out of the mud for him to enthrone himself is the small altar. He sits in a simple wooden chair, draping his cloak over it seemingly in an attempt to make it look more regal. Gradually, the dirt makes its way up cloaks and the hems of dresses, up the wooden walls and rails as they become flecked and marked with grubby handprints. Far from blood being the main motif, it’s the dirt which becomes the metaphor for guilt.

As ever, Branagh takes the Bard’s words and puts them in context, but there is very little feel of the evolution of the characters. It’s all dark, right from the beginning, with the naked ambition of the Macbeths existing in a moral and literal sewer right from the start. The “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is heartfelt but a little weary, and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking a little too manic. It all has the atmosphere of futility. Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford stated that they wanted to depict Macbeth and his wife (here played by Alex Kingston) as a team, working together, which may have been why there is little feel of Lady Macbeth’s dominating influence. Both she and Macbeth are in the dirt to begin with and that’s where they stay. Consequently, the play felt a little depressing, which perhaps was the point.

There were some genuinely creepy and haunting moments – Fleance first appears playing a strange, soft melody on a flute; the wyrd sisters gibber and whisper in the shadows, and nameless figures flit in and out of each entrance like something from a horror film. Sometimes, however, the dramatic devices are strangely overdone. In the apparition scene, zombie-like figures of dead soldiers lurch from the earth beneath a black, pentacle-daubed shroud, whilst the face of each apparition appears and contorts at its centre. This was all very visually arresting, but felt a little trite, and the action did overwhelm the plot at this point, with much of the dialogue inaudible over the chanting.

Reviewers have described this production as “visceral”, “full-blooded” and, most interestingly, “cinematic”, a description which perhaps implicitly acknowledges that it was exactly designed to be filmed as part of the NT Live series. This is how I saw the production, and it was certainly clear that this was to be as much a filmed experience as a live one. Of course, watching the action on a screen is not the same as being there, nether should it be, but I took solace in the fact that I was considerably more comfortable than many of the real audience. You could see some people moving out of the way as grappling Scots came hurtling towards them, and by the end of the 135 minutes (with no interval) some audience members were looking genuinely shell-shocked by all the carnage.

For me, watching in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room, this was a production at one remove, with the glimpses of cameras and shots of the audience behind the actors’ heads as much a part of it as the play itself. Yet, there were times when we saw things that the conventional audience couldn’t. When a long shaft of light forms the image of the dagger on the ground in front of Macbeth, we are privy to an impressive view of it from above Branagh’s head. Likewise, at the end of the play Malcolm raises his sword in the air directly towards us to mark his victory. Clearly the blocking of the action was designed to play equally to those watching through the camera lens as to those present.

The camerawork was excellent, with very few shots missing their mark or being obstructed by the action. Having said that, it is emphatically not a theatre experience and therefore the theatrical style of acting did at times come across as forced or over the top, since you forget that you’re watching a play and not a movie (though this production did sometimes veer a little too sharply into ‘shouty’ territory anyway). There is also the occasional frustration of having your view chosen for you, denying you the ability to get a sense of a scene as a whole or focus on one performer. These points aside, this is certainly an imaginative and laudable way of allowing more people to get to see a staging of the play, with the emphasis on inclusion. (A preamble before the play calls upon the audience to applaud just as they would at the real performance, as “the actors will feel it”!)

The ticket prices for NT Live perhaps reflect the hybrid nature of the experience – more expensive than an average cinema visit, but far cheaper than a theatre seat. The National Theatre is planning screenings of other works, such as Othello (with Adrian Lester) and Coriolanus (with Tom Hiddleston), and I would be interested to see how these are handled, to get a feel of how much influence the theatre directors have over the filming.

There are several encore screenings of Macbeth taking place around the UK in August (and later in the year for the US). Details of these and other NT Live productions can be found at

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