Is This a Dagger I See On the Cinema Screen?
The Telegraph, 21 July 2013
The Scottish Play is now the Scottish Film as well. In the latest of the National Theatre’s excellent initiatives to show its productions live in cinemas round the country, Sir Kenneth Branagh is offering us 'Macbeth', co-directed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh. Demand is high, and the Moore family booked well in advance. We went to see it on Saturday night at the charming Kino cinema in Hawkhurst, Kent. An introductory on-screen interview with Sir Kenneth’s co-director, Rob Ashford, put us in the mood, and invited us to join in the theatre audience’s clapping at the end.
The production takes place in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. This has a clear theatrical benefit of creating an atmosphere of prevailing good against which the evil of Macbeth and his wife (Alex Kingston) transgresses. It also means that the aisle (which, rather than the altar, the pews unusually face) is the main scene of the action. Its floor is covered with uneven mud. This sense of the narrow ground in which the struggle for kingship is contested must be powerful if you are there. It must be exciting to have the swords clashing and Sir Kenneth spitting under your nose. But, seen from a cinema seat, it creates a problem.
The more traditional stage and proscenium arch make it easy for the viewer’s eye to focus: you can understand the priorities of the action at a glance. Without this visual assistance, perspective gets harder. Seen from afar, the dark and dirty aisle has a confusing effect. Why are people running one way or another down it? Which way is Birnam Wood and which Dunsinane? If you are not sure, it is hard to be sufficiently awed when the former moves to the latter. Watching the play on film, one can see the audience looking deeply involved. Unfortunately, this has a distancing effect: we cannot properly see what they see, feel what they feel. The only effect where the aisle enhances things is when Macbeth’s vision of the dagger begins as light cast on the rough floor as if through a narrow window; but even this is spoilt when the dagger suddenly becomes the usual short, sharp, much too tangible object dancing in the air.
There are therefore moments when the attention wanders. I must admit that, now and again, sleep knit up my “ravelled sleeve of care” rather too easily, and I discovered afterwards that this had happened not just to me, but to all of us, including the alert young.
Another effect of the church setting is that changes of mood become harder, because lighting is more of a problem and space less flexible. There is no sense that the three witches (whose lines are sadly curtailed) are on a heath. Indeed, they pop out of wooden doors like diabolical cuckoo clocks. Nor does one get any feeling that the castle of Macbeth “hath a pleasant seat”, as Duncan innocently remarks. Everything is dark from beginning to end, which makes it harder to track any change in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – from ambitious couple, to murderers, to her guilty madness and suicide and his weirdly growing courage in his self-created adversity. One has little developing sense of why they do what they do.
There are certainly some good things about this production. The porter scene, famous for how direly it is often rendered, has excellent visual surprises, which I shall not reveal. And some other lines in other parts of the play that often cause inappropriate mirth – “He has killed me, mother. Run away I pray you” and “It is the cry of women, noble lord” – are delivered confidently and movingly.
I also liked its Scottish look. The relevant men wear tartan (while the English affect less manly, more tabard-like outfits), and, from red-bearded Sir Kenneth downwards, they convince. Indeed, it is a pity that the production does not take its own Scottishness more seriously, giving the local accent to all clansmen rather than just a few. It could make more of the Celtic feel which is surely there in Shakespeare just as the sense of the city and the empire is real in his Roman plays. Secretly, I would like someone to play Macbeth in the guise of Alex Salmond, though I realise it would be rather a cheap trick.
What of Sir Kenneth himself? He has a commanding physical presence (though I am not convinced that he moves nimbly enough to win all his sword-fights if they were happening in real life). He delivers his lines with attack and energy. He gives the impression of having thought hard about both the part and the play.
Yet one never quite escapes the impression that one is watching Sir Kenneth Branagh play a great Shakespearean part when one would much rather forget all that and just watch Macbeth himself. The “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech always suffers the “To be or not to be” effect of being too famous for its own good. This difficulty is not nullified, however, by gobbing in the middle or by elongating the end so long – “a tale told by an idiot signifying……… nothing” that one wonders whether he has forgotten the line.
Although he speaks distinctly, Sir Kenneth does not recognise that Shakespeare’s punctuation is there for a reason. He seems possessed of an irrational fear that if you do not include the first two or three words of the next sentence in your delivery of the earlier one, the audience will switch channels. So he comes in hard, but at the wrong moment, like someone who cannot keep time to music.
We did all clap at the end, but dutifully rather than fervently.