'Macbeth' Review

The Guardian, 6 July 2013
By Michael Billington
* Thanks Karen

This is more like it. After a lightweight 'Macbeth' at Shakespeare's Globe, we now get a production that gets closer to the heart of the play's mystery. Staged in a deconsecrated Victorian church for the Manchester International Festival, it is co-directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh and boasts a performance by the latter that reminds us what an intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor he is.

The production has many fine qualities as well as one or two dubious ones. With the audience seated on two sides of a tunnel-like, traverse stage, it has the great virtue of immediacy: we seem to be in the thick of the rain-soaked, mud-spattered opening battles. Cutting short all intermission also gives the action a hurtling momentum. But I was puzzled as to why the Macbeths debate the practicality of murdering Duncan within earshot of their passing servants.

And I'm not sure it's a good idea to show us Macbeth actually stabbing the sleeping Duncan: the horror of the deed is all the more potent if we see it refracted through Macbeth's guilt.

This is a quality that stands out strongly in Branagh's performance. There's no doubt that this Macbeth has dreamed of gaining the crown. But it is fascinating to see how Branagh stammers on the initial letters of "murder" and "assassination" as if chilled by what the words represent; and, after he has carried out the deed, Branagh puts his hands together in silent prayer.

Even kingship does nothing to still his conscience. At one extraordinary point, Branagh curls up on the throne wrapping himself in his cloak as if to hide from his own tormented self.

But what I admire about Branagh is that he is not afraid to do a spot of old-fashioned acting. The highest compliment I can pay him is that at times he evoked golden memories of Olivier in the role.

When Branagh cries "to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus ..." he italicises the word "nothing" by a fierce tenor bark; and, in the play's later scenes, Branagh conveys the desolation and despair of a man who has sold his soul only to be confronted by the hollowness of tyrannical power. This is a performance that shows us the scorpions inside Macbeth's mind and that should appear to great advantage when the production is broadcast live to UK cinemas on 20 July.

There are other good performances. Alex Kingston's Lady Macbeth starts as a blazing power-seeker and ends as a burnt-out case. Ray Fearon's Macduff is bold and vigorous, John Shrapnel's Duncan is a notably martial monarch and Rosalie Craig cuts quite a dash as Lady Macduff. I was puzzled as to why Jimmy Yuill's Banquo seemed a generation older than Macbeth and why the Witches, while making striking appearances in the arches at one end of the nave, gulp and swallow their words.

But this is an exciting production that shows why Branagh is such a fine Shakespearean actor. He can do the soaring vocal cries but he is also sensitive to the minutiae of language.

When he asks the doctor "Cans't thou not minister to a mind diseased?" he inserts a pause after the first syllable of the last word as if to prove that Macbeth's own problem is one of "dis-ease" and that he has never known the joys of peace and security. That's real acting.

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