Theatre Review: Macbeth - Kenneth Branagh's Spot of Bother at the Manchester International Festival
Branagh’s Manchester Macbeth goes head-to-head with a London staging at Shakespeare’s Globe, and it’s a draw
The Independent, 6 July 2013
Turn, hellhound, turn! So cries Macduff in the climactic battle scene of 'Macbeth', mustering all his strength to slay Shakespeare’s eponymous tyrant and deliver Scotland from the forces of evil. Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth – a rugged, sweating warrior in medieval tartan (albeit with an English accent) – is finally going to bite the dust, or rather the squelching bog beneath his feet.
Co-directed by Rob Ashford and Branagh for the Manchester International Festival, this high-profile production performed in a deconsecrated church will additionally be relayed to an outdoor big screen in Manchester, and to cinemas nationwide, on 20 July.)
The nave’s central aisle looks like a bull run. It’s been bounded by a palisade of dark planks and covered in peat-black earth – with traverse-style seating. In the apse at the church’s East end, a myriad candles flicker. But at the West end, the organ loft has been converted into a soiled fortress wall, in which the Weird Sisters materialise. They are a ghoul-girl trinity, a travesty of saints in arched niches – faces blackened, eyeballs rolling, jittering like deranged monkeys.
They’re getting their degenerate kicks out of the bloodshed unleashed below. It seems Ashford and Branagh also think that acting out as much slaughter as possible adds oomph. Rather than being reported, the play’s opening war is waged before us, a mass of clanging swords under pouring rain. Later, we see the sacrilegious murder of King Duncan too, his bed being placed where the altar would have been.
Certainly, this production has dramatic thrills. Hell’s flames blaze through grilles. Daggers uncannily hover in mid air (courtesy of illusion consultant Paul Kieve) and, on press night, sparks showered into the front row as Ray Fearon’s Macduff clashed blades with Branagh.
And yet the overall effect is curiously dull. This 'Macbeth' feels as if it is bidding to be turned into a middlebrow movie with goth-horror appeal, some gallimaufry of 'Rob Roy' and 'The Exorcist'. With honorable exceptions – including John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill, both sturdy as Duncan and Banquo – much of the acting is lame or hammy. Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth, alas, borders on the embarrassing, acting vampish with no conviction.
Few brilliantly insightful new interpretations emerge, although it is notable that Branagh’s Macbeth is stammeringly guilt-wracked when ordering Banquo’s assassination, hugging a blanket round himself as he slumps in his throne. Though it may strike some as great classical acting, his performance is a curate’s egg, in truth. He is often very good, looks the part, understands the psychology, delivers Shakespeare’s verse with a fluidity that sounds fresh. But then there’ll be an affected pause, a milked vowel (“Owwwwwt brief candle”), a moment so mannered you’d think you were watching Edmund Kean. The MIF has, surely, cast aside its avant-gardism for something more old-school here.
To open another production of 'Macbeth' in the same week was bold on the part of Shakespeare’s Globe. Whether intending to rival or to ride on the back of Branagh, the London venture, entrusted to actress Eve Best, a first-time director, is risky.
Against the backdrop of a white stockade, Joseph Millson’s Macbeth and Samantha Spiro’s Lady Macbeth seem unusually innocent at first. Returning from the battlefield with a leather satchel slung over his jerkin, Millson’s tall, slim Macbeth (with an English accent) looks timid and youthful. Billy Boyd’s salty (and Scots) Banquo accosts the Weird Sisters with scorn, even as Millson shrinks away. In turn, Spiro is girlishly breathless on hearing of her husband’s augured promotions, and she beseeches (rather than commands) evil spirits to imbue her with regicidal cruelty.
In shunning obvious Gothic malignity, the production is mildly refreshing. Millson excels at combining clear logic and frenzied anxiety in his vacillating soliloquies. Excellent supporting performances include Gawn Grainger’s cheerily doddery Duncan. Nonetheless, Finty Williams turns Macduff’s spouse into a hollering fishwife, and the Weird Sisters are nearer Marcel Marceau than black magic, neither poignant nor scary. The production finds comic rhythms in more scenes than I’ve seen before, not least in Banquo’s ghost. Best pushes this too far though, giving Macbeth a touch of Basil Fawlty at the banquet.