Kenneth Branagh to Play Macbeth Among Church-goers
Manchester Festival Has Honour of Actor's First Shakespeare Role in 10 Years In 'Immersive' Staging Within Deconsecrated Church

The Guardian, 14 November 2012
By Charlotte Higgins

Unless you count his performance of "the isle is full of noises" speech from 'The Tempest' at the Olympics opening ceremony, it has been a decade since Kenneth Branagh played a Shakespeare role on the stage: that was 'Richard III' at the Crucible in Sheffield.

Next year, however, the actor is to take on one of the most testing parts in the repertoire: Macbeth. And he will do it in the intimate circumstances of a deconsecrated church in Manchester, to an audience of not more than 300 at a time. According to Alex Poots, the director of the Manchester international festival: "It will certainly not be the audience observing the action from a distance, behind the proscenium arch. They'll feel very involved. It will be an immersive experience."

The festival, said Poots, had tempted Branagh through its experience of making work in unconventional spaces and unexpected ways, citing two projects conceived for the 2009 festival: the architect Zaha Hadid designed a pavilion specially for performances of Bach, and 'It Felt Like A Kiss', a dystopian vision of America, was performed in a derelict office block by theatre company Punchdrunk and documentary maker Adam Curtis.

Rob Ashford, behind acclaimed productions of 'Anna Christie' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at London's Donmar Warehouse, is to co-direct Macbeth, along with Branagh, who was knighted this month. In fact intimacy might be regarded as a keynote of the first shows announced for the 2013 festival, which runs from 4 to 21 July.

The xx, the band whose eponymous debut album won the Mercury in 2009, and whose latest, Co-exist, was released to praise this autumn, is to undertake a residency at the festival. Instead of performing one major show, they will play around 17 concerts, each to an audience of not more than 70.

Audience members will be asked to congregate at a meeting point, and will then be conveyed to another secret venue: "We will appeal to our audience's generous sides to keep it a secret," said Poots, referring to those who watched the rehearsals for the Olympics opening ceremony and "saved the surprise".

"In an environment when things are so available where anyone can get the music they want immediately online we are thinking about how there is something very precious about the live experience," said Poots. "I sense there is something in the air, with everything having been so money-driven over the past decade, that now some artists are feeling a responsibility to respond to the culture in more generous ways."

It was unusual, he said, for a "big band that is breaking through" to step out of the mould of touring to huge venues. The xx shows, he said, would be moulded by "a very smart creative team" that would work with the band to create a theatrical, strongly visual element to the concerts.

The Manchester international festival was founded in 2007; at its heart is the notion of presenting new work in all genres and, according to Poots, giving artists the opportunity "to realise their great unrealised projects".

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