Excerpted from Macbeth; Circle Mirror Transformation; The Paper Architect – Review
The Observer, 14 July 2013
Mired in mud, smeared with blood, witchily gibbering and fighting so close to the audience that spectators wince at the claymores, this rousing 'Macbeth' is the theatrical pinnacle of the Manchester international festival. It belongs in a double sense to Kenneth Branagh. He takes the title role and shares the direction with Rob Ashford. Yet it belongs at least as much to the designer Christopher Oram. The most powerful imagination in the production is visual.
Branagh has a crisp authority in Shakespeare. He whisks through the verse, refreshingly treating it as information rather than self-expression. He unpicks knotty passages and brings the meaning close to home, making the abstract seem immediate. His "out, out, brief candle", delivered in anguish, is less metaphysical speculation than a lament for his wife. Yet his natural power slackens when his interpreting becomes evident and he studs the speech with effects. At critical moments his speech becomes as fractured as his thoughts, and he stammers. He is barely able to spit out the word "murder". Ingenious, but one stutter would have been enough.
There is, alongside some candid performing (particularly from Ray Fearon), a taint of visible Acting. Alex Kingston is a particular culprit. As slow as Branagh is swift, she is marmoreal and declamatory, with some odd emphases. In the sleepwalking scene she jabs her fingers robotically.
It is not the speaking but the staging that takes you into the heart of 'Macbeth'. It was an inspired move to set this most guilt-ridden and spirit-afflicted of Shakespeare's plays in a deconsecrated church. It was a shrewd move to squeeze the action into a long strip with the audience in wooden pews on either side. Battles (the opening scenes show the fights, rather than reporting them) burst and squelch out of the rain-sodden space. The dramatic contrasts of the play can be seen at a glance. At the altar end is a thicket of golden candles, slowly snuffed out in the course of the evening. At the other is a wall of dark wood, ruptured when the witches burst out of it from concealed doors. Light drizzles only occasionally through these planks. Darkness prevails. Not a revelation about Macbeth, but a truth. National Theatre Live will broadcast the production on Saturday.