From Manchester to Portland: NT Live’s “Macbeth” with Kenneth Branagh

Excerpted from PQ Monthly, 29 October 2013
By Leela Ginelle

Like the Metropolitan Opera, London’s prestigious National Theatre broadcasts performances around the world via satellite.

In Portland, the Third Rail Repertory Company hosts these shows at the World Trade Center’s spacious, modern theater, where patrons can come enjoy the sometimes paradoxical, sometimes thrilling experience of watching live theater beamed onto a screen.

Currently showing is “Macbeth” (through Nov. 3), starring and co-directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh.

The production is staged at a deconsecrated church in Manchester. Watching the audience members in pews only feet away from the cast communicates how special it must have been to attend the site-specific show – the entire run sold out in 9 minutes – while simultaneously reminding one she’s thousands of miles, and a dozen rows, away.

The draw, of course, is to experience something one couldn’t in his own back yard, in this case, the Macbeth of Kenneth Branagh.

Since emerging with his film adaptation of “Henry V” in 1989, when he was only 29, Branagh has been his generation’s leading male interpreter of Shakespeare.

He’s directed five Shakespearian features, but hadn’t appeared in a role himself for over a decade. The chance to see him tackle one of the great tragic roles such as this one, is every English major’s dream.

The production struck me as a bit of a mixed bag. Unlike the updated settings of “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Hamlet,” this “Macbeth” is resolutely medieval, with dirt floors, abundant beards and swords, and lots of grunting.

Though Branagh, as co-director, must have helped conceive of the production, he seemed slightly out of place in it, a modern, thoughtful, charming, philosophical, fairly metrosexual male living and, temporarily, thriving in the dark ages.

His interpretation, however, was often striking. "Macbeth" is such a condensed play, with characters processing on the fly as incidents and bodies pile up. Actors commonly cover up in the role, reacting by shutting down their emotions, and becoming increasingly hardened to the events unfolding.

Branagh’s style, though, is to bring everything of himself to every moment he performs. This can lead to charges of hamminess, which he himself spoofed in his turn as the smarmy wizard Gilderoy Lockhart in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” but, in the right part, such profound openness conveys humanness where we least expect it.

In this play, for instance, monologues come not as prepackaged monuments in need of delivery, but as snatches of thought from an increasingly fevered mind. The revelation of Macbeth’s madness following the murder is more expansive and complete than one generally sees, yet it feels perfectly grounded, and, coming where it does, suggests the logical beginning of Lady Macbeth’s unraveling.

The performance’s triumph, however, is the reading of the “life is a tale told by an idiot” speech, toward the end. Rather than serving as a renunciation of one’s ties to humankind, as is common, and as the text itself might suggest, Branagh lets all the pain and sadness he’s endured until that point bubble up and consume him.

It’s revelatory, and it provoked tears several time zones from Manchester at the show I attended.

Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth was vivid if, at times, a bit overly declamatory. This could be an odd byproduct of watching a filmed performance, the sense that someone is yelling from a few feet away from you. Her performance of the sleepwalking scene was striking, another case in which possibly the world’s most produced script seemed to have been invented anew.

Ray Fearon as MacDuff gives an extremely impassioned, capital “E” emotive performance that the audience will likely love of decidedly not love. I’m in the latter camp, though I can see why others would feel differently.

The showdown at the end between MacBeth and MacDuff is staged in an almost surreal way that feels fresh and somehow perfectly suited to what had come before.

Those who love culture and theater have likely read of “Burton’s Hamlet” or “Ralph Fiennes’ Edmund,” tantalizingly legendary performances lost to the ages, seen only by those who happened to be in the right city at the right time and in possession of a ticket.

Technology democratizes this dilemma. Watching this performance I only occasionally forgot I was enjoying it via satellite, but I was similarly aware I was enjoying something I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to witness.

“Branagh’s Macbeth” is something I’ll likely remember. “Adrian Lester’s Othello” looked pretty enticing in the preview I saw, and “Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein” sounds intriguing.

Portland has a wealth of live theater to keep its citizens nourished, but there’s nothing wrong, from time to time, with eating out.

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