Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, review
6th July 2013
Macbeth, St Peter’s Church, Ancoats, Manchester International Festival, review. First published in the Daily Telegraph, July 6, 2013.
One of Kenneth Branagh’s greatest achievements in bringing Shakespeare to the screen was conveying the gruesome toil of war in Henry V.
And in this thrilling, cinematically fluid account of Macbeth – which tonight marked his long-awaited return to serving the Bard on stage after a more than 10-year absence – Branagh, who co-directs with Rob Ashford as well as taking the lead, doesn’t hold back in plunging us into the harrowing grime of battle.
Taking over, in an inspired act of transgression, a deconsecrated church in Manchester – finally revealed as St Peter’s, Ancoats – the production places its audience on facing banks of seating along the length of the nave. A blast of choral song, a bursting through mud-caked wooden walls of the sepulchral three witches and then we’re in the midst of a protracted, rain-soaked enactment of the opening battle-field scenes. As the earthy playing-area turns into a bog, as drums beats and swords clash, something stirs in the memory. Oh yes, Shakespeare can be really exciting, can’t he?
While the evening, which hurtles by in little over two hours, brilliantly captures the battle-hardened nature of the world Macbeth inhabits, Branagh, a rugged 52, shows us the vestigial civilisation beneath the martial exterior. He is first full of amicable disbelief, paces alone in breathless cogitation, falters before the act of betrayal – here bloodily shown on the altar itself, snuffing out surrounding candles – and becomes more unhinged and volatile as events are set in unstoppable motion.
Just as it becomes impossible for him to discern where his inner perturbations end and the outer nightmare begins, so it’s fiendishly hard too to establish where the power of his performance, sensationally assured in its vocal command, ends and the rest of the ensemble’s valiant labours take over. Everything seems of an equally potent, atmospheric piece – and Branagh is expertly matched by Alex Kingston as a goading Lady Macbeth whose fortitude finally succumbs to a delirium that answers his own.
Boasting a cast of over 25 and even the wondrous coup de theatre of hell-fire flaming up through the floors, all the night lacks are decent cushions for the crowd – it’s murder on the buttocks. This is a Macbeth, though, that won’t just go down as a highlight of the Manchester International Festival but as one of the Scottish Play’s great revivals. It’s a phoenix-like feather in the cap of Sir Ken, too, comeback Shakespearean king.