christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: July, 2013

The sound and the fury – Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth

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.

The Stones in Hyde Park – the glorious return

Forty four years on from the iconic 1969 Hyde Park gig, with hippies in the trees and out of tune guitars blazing, when Mick appeared, poetry in hand, in a cloud of woozy butterflies, the Stones return triumphant. Things are a little different this time. It’s not free for one. It’s the second of the Stones’ gigs in Hyde Park, a multi-million pound money spinner, tattooed with corporate sponsorship, and hospitality areas, but it’s still undeniably exciting.

Baby-boomers mix with young trendy Londoners; behind us a group of lads from Liverpool clamber on each other’s shoulders and try and guess the set list. It’s the hottest day of the year so far, the grass is parched yellow on the banks of the Serpentine, public school boys sell ten pound pizzas and crowds queue for hours for five pound pints of Heineken. There are a few concessions to a festival atmosphere – a funfair and mini carnival straight out of Rio de Janeiro; plus a fake Spanish/Cuban village where beer is dispensed, but really it’s all window dressing for the main event.


Beneath a stage half concealed by fake oaks and foliage, the band are a sensational force, matured to perfection showing off both their superb musicianship and unbeatable song writing chops. Start Me Up grinds into gear, like a giant machine lumbering back into life, burning off the rust, despite Keith repeating his odd, atonal intro from the week before. Perhaps he’s stubbornly making the point that it was intentional.

‘Do you like our set?‘ drawls Mick, ‘I think it should stay here in the park. Maybe with a tree house for Boris Johnson or something.’ As they charge into It’s only Rock and Roll (But I like it) with it’s Chuck Berry guitar he’s already up and preening, essaying those patented Jagger moves: the peacock strut, the leap in the air with the karate chop arm, the lip pout with seal clap. ‘Are you alwight?‘ he shouts, following by a Jackson-esque ‘Ow!’ For anyone playing Moves like Jagger bingo, they would have had a full house by the end of the second number.


The set is familiar to anyone who has seen their Glastonbury Performance and all the corner stones of their career are in place. With the exception of a jagged, Doom and Gloom, from the latest compilation Grrr, however there is little from the 90s or 00s, which is a shame for fans of their underrated, rough round the edges album A Bigger Bang. But that’s not really the point of this 50th birthday party celebration. The grinning keyboard player strikes the cowbell and signals the delirium that is Honky Tonk Women; Jagger sings it in his wildest country twangs – almost as an impression of himself, conscious perhaps of its place deep in our collective psyche. Its also a wonder to watch the intricate guitar work between Keef and Ronnie as they noodle between the chords (what Keith has called elsewhere ’the two of us twinkling felicitously together’).

Boris would have had a bird’s eye view of a valedictory performance from this fabled bad, so legendary in fact it’s odd even seeing them in the flesh. As a band they are ten times as tight as they were, without losing that loose, languid beat that gives every song that wonderful, drag. As someone near me said, ‘Charlie is so behind the beat it sounds like he’s playing different songs with a different band,’ but then that’s the Stones sound. He sits bolt upright on his stool, drumsticks held jazz style, still rake thin, his jaw set in concentration with a far away look in his eye – as if from where he is sitting he can see all the way back down the decades.


As ever, Mick is part ring master, part aerobics instructor, doing the lion share of the work, introducing the band – even coaxing a hello from a permanently shy Charlie. ‘He speaks!’ Jagger announces, delighted. His vocals sound great – elastic and rangy, and his falsetto on Some Girls Miss You is perfect. In facts it’s in these funkier, dance grooves that Jagger seems to feel most at home, as if he would be quite happy living in a world of late seventies New York disco. He works his way, Mr Ben-like, through at least ten different costumes from floaty purple shirts, natty gold jackets, to Grace Jones like fur gowns anchored to his skin tight, black bodysuit.

Street Fighting Man is barnstorming; close your eyes and it sounds just as good as it did on the classic Live Album ‘Get your Ya Ya’ Out.’ The only difference between then and now is Jagger‘s anachronistic announcement: ‘This is a request from the internet.’


Keith is happy to hang back, grinning and laughing good naturedly; romancing his guitar, his gold rings glinting in the sunlight. Now grey haired but with a blue headband and colourful clobber, he is pirate, magician and snake charmer rolled into one. With the neck of his guitar raised, he lets the open chords ring out. He steps forward for a couple of numbers of his own while Mick goes off to change his leotard, (‘so I can go and get my water and my Coke‘). Keith clearly enjoys himself, wheezing through ‘You Got the Silver,’ with Ronnie on slide, as well as the upbeat ’Happy’ from Exile on Main Street, which is a surprise high point of the set. His voice is weathered, but oozing with warmth and character; buoyed by soulful contributions of backing singer, Lisa.

Other songs accentuate the Stone‘s darker side; Paint it Black is wonderful, with its eastern flourishes – and images of Brian Jones flashed up on the screen alongside black and white live footage of the band. Gimme Shelter is also suitably menacing, with its iconic guitar intro and Mick clearly enjoying his high octane duet with the formidable Lisa: ‘Oh, storm is threatening, my very life today!’ Sympathy for the Devil, complete with sulphurous smoke, spouting lava and trees in flames is as demonic as ever and the crowd duly obliges with a chorus of train whistle whooping.


Mick Taylor ambles on for Midnight Rambler. The one time Stone whose first gig was that Hyde Park gig in ‘69 is now quite a few stones heavier and appears twice the size of toothpick-thin Mick Jagger. But his guitar playing is still as spectacular and the attack and nifty interplay with Mick’s harp makes this a welcome collaboration – and not just for nostalgic reasons.

On the whole, Charlie, Keith and Mick seem at ease throughout, having shaken off the distracted, angst ridden demeanour of yesterday. Ronnie seems more preoccupied, although his playing is outstanding, switching between pedal steel, acoustic and electric. Even now, there’s a sense he’s still on probation, having to prove his place in the band. Darryl Jones, the bass player who has supported them loyally since Bill Wyman jumped ship in the early nineties, is also given his own spotlight during Emotional Rescue – and more than proves his metal on the funky runs.


At the end, with a nod back to the white butterflies back in 1969, the crowd is showered in a confetti of red petals during a climatic Satisfaction. Then the four of them stand shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, as amazed as we are perhaps, that they are still in such fine nick, still clinging to their rusting crowns, as the greatest rock and roll band in the world.