This Manchester Macbeth is a rain sodden triumph. Set in a deconsecrated cathedral where rain pours from the heavens and soaks into the soil of the battlefield beneath the players’ feet, this dark, bloody play unfolds – in Kenneth Branagh’s own words – with ‘a blasphemous intensity.’ Playing the part with authority, wit and range (not to mention a kilt) the darling of the British stage continues his never ending comeback, with a subtle character study of the Scottish King’s ambition, power, lust and nobility.
His voice is the thing. One moment, it is sweet, melodious, all Benedick from Much Ado – charming, witty, high pitched and even silly. The next, it blows into a thunderous fury. The transitions from a chuckle to a sob, a cackle to a howl is what makes Branagh’s delivery truly thrilling. All the psychology is transmitted through the speech. The rumours of ‘muttering’ in this production are unfounded; the reasons the tickets sold out in nine minutes is because people want to hear those immortal lines spoken with a poetry, intelligence and clarity that makes them immediately intelligible. You don’t need a modern translation to understand Shakespeare, you just need an actor who understands what he is saying. Branagh is in rare form; full of those trademark, disarming asides that suddenly make the text sound as fresh. A simple bright ‘thanks’ renders the text utterly modern.
But it is not just the speech, the production co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford for the Manchester International Festival, is full of memorable images too. The ‘dagger I see before me’ is moonlight shone through a cruciform window (another dagger, dangling comically from the roof, is a rare ill judged moment). The supernatural is the manifestation of Macbeth’s startled imagination, a psychological tic, a moral disfigurement of the mind.
The choreography is superb; an argument in the corridor between Macbeth and his wife is interrupted by the servants passing through with plates of food and jugs of wine. Like a modern couple rowing in public, they pause mid sentence to allow strangers to pass, then resume, lowering their voices to a serpent-like hiss. Banquo’s blanched and bloodied appearance as a ghost at the supper table is genuinely frightening and the table even divides (a similar model is possibly available from Ikea) to allow his ghost to glide through.
The fights are bloody and physical – splattering the dress shirts and programmes of the two audiences they play between. The clashing swords towards the end of the play were a little slower perhaps than at the start – partly because of the excessive heat, and partly because a member of the cast had already found himself in casualty after a little over zealous fencing in an earlier performance. The music and particularly the lighting constantly redefine the space – little more than a muddy trough – to almost anything required of it.
The Porter’s scene, always greeted with huge anticipation, is a minor a masterpiece in itself. It is played high up on a balcony, with the Porter as a Mr Punch character, the insensible bodies of drunken guests flopped out over the top of the high balcony as the players in his farce. Doors swing open and close and bodies almost escape, as the ’knock knock gags’ are trotted out, all executed with a nasty relish. As so often in Shakespeare, the comedy offsets the tragedy, and if there is a minor gripe it is perhaps that the lines Shakespeare supplies for this clown are not quite funny enough. But they certainly make the most of them here. His parting bow: ‘I pray you, remember then porter’ sounded portentous as well as self aggrandising – the porter at the gates of hell is soon to receive new visitors.
The entire cast is first rate – both young and old; the Duncan and Banquo are at the senior end, and play their parts with a total command of speech: full of wit, warmth and vigour. The younger players are equally fine – particularly Malcolm, whose maturity grows throughout the play, revealing himself as the true and noble heir. Macduff is magnificent – a tower of moral and physical strength and his emoting after hearing of the murder of his wife and children is all but unbearable. ‘All my pretty chickens?’ he asks.
Alex Kingston plays Lady Macbeth as a seductress, persuasive and physical and her lusty husband returning from battle is easy prey. He is already giddy with the novelty of his recently acquired title and the simple step to the crown seems almost a trifle. Her speaking is rich and full, and her ability to make the totally unreasonable sound reasonable is astonishing. Macbeth‘s transition from admired general and loyal subject to murderous traitor happens almost imperceptibly as she lights the wick of his ambition; his realisation that there is no way back after the first murder is the true tragedy of the piece and reveals her as the real witch of the production. He is appalled at the moral consequences of his actions:
I could not say ‘Amen,’
When they did say ‘God bless us!’
Consider it not so deeply.
The three weird sisters (the other witches) meanwhile are played with an impish energy – they cartwheel about the place as their deliver their fateful predictions, entertainingly teenage and gothic.
But simply none of them can compete with Branagh. Such is his ventriloquism, his ability to articulate the different voices of the mind, it is as if he is staging a one man show within the production. Somehow I hadn’t cottoned on to the fact before that the ‘strut and fret his hour on the stage’ speech comes directly after hearing of the death of his wife. We witness his total metal and physical breakdown – he becomes literally a drooling wreck as his heart breaks in two as the whole wicked enterprise falls apart; the scheme devised to benefit them both – is now utterly meaningless.
One scene in particular sticks in the mind: Macbeth slumped on the throne, finally king – but instead glorying in the moment of his triumph, he is an empty vessel. Insomniac, paranoid, guilt ridden, his crown hung up like a cap behind him, he laments the peace he has lost and abhors the monster he has become.
The four curtain calls – the actors arranged in a single long row but facing different directions – were thoroughly well deserved. This is exhilarating theatre, the production as daring and inventive as the text itself.