Manchester International Festival's 'Macbeth' Moves to New York
Kenneth Branagh wows the critics across the pond in a production which has it's roots firmly in Manchester, as Sarah Walters finds out

Manchester Evening News, 9 June 2014
By Sarah Walters
Thanks Renie

In a muddy aisle in a New York theatre just feet away from me, Sir Kenneth Branagh is in the middle of a sword fight.

The last time I witnessed Sir Ken do this, I was sitting in these same pews in a deconsecrated church in Ancoats, watching the UK-born actor take on a role he had waited almost his entire career to play – Shakespeare’s 'Macbeth'.

“I didn’t see anything of Manchester then and I’m not seeing any of New York now,” the actor laughs, as he explains the intensity of rehearsals to which this Shakespearean scholar finds himself drawn to earlier and earlier on a daily basis. Watching the complex choreography of the fight, which he performs nightly with sharp swords (and has already spilt more than a drop of blood doing), I’m hardly surprised he’s putting in the extra rehearsal hours.

When 'Macbeth' – or Mancbeth as it affectionately became known – opened back home last summer as the headline show in the Manchester International Festival calendar, it attracted universal acclaim as well as a swell of social media fury about the scarcity of tickets – there were only about 260 a night, and despite a £65 price tag, they sold out in hours.

The same is true across the pond, even though tickets cost around $250 and the capacity at the Park Avenue Armory – where MIF director Alex Poots is a co-artistic director – is almost four times the size, at around 1,000 people. Certainly the fact this is Branagh's New York stage debut has justified those prices.

With the exception of Richard Coyle playing Macduff in place of Ray Fearon, the cast is unchanged and the show has been met with rave reviews here, too – one notable exception, the Wall Street Journal, which called it 'earthbound and unpoetically literal'. But the New York Times called it the 'summer blockbuster' and the NY Daily News gave it five stars.

Most exciting of all, though, they all mention its origins in Manchester.

Park Avenue Armory is a very different venue – a grand former military barracks once owned by America’s richest army regiment, who built themselves a palace to broadcast their wealth. From the outside, it looks like a castle and it takes up a whole block; even on the already flashy boulevard on the east side of Central Park, it’s a show off piece of architecture.

Inside, it’s dimly lit by enormous chandeliers and dotted with opulent, wood-clad locker rooms much more extravagant than their purpose implies. After suffering years of neglect, the Armory is undergoing a multi-million dollar facelift to restore the rooms – some of which feature Tiffany windows and ornate metalwork mezzanines – to their former glory.

'Macbeth', meanwhile, has taken over the former drill hall, a large space reminiscent of Manchester’s Central’s arched main hall that, everyone agrees, has exaggerated the military themes in the play. Still, though, the action is mostly confined to one end that almost exactly mimics the Ancoats set up: an altar (here with a more pagan influence) and an aisle. In the darkness at the other end, and beyond a mini Stonehenge, the newest lair of the witches, is 'Macbeth’s' ‘hallowed heath’ from where the play’s climactic final assault begins.

Looking out at this expansive set, I’m unsurprised to find this is costing more than $3m to stage. “The only people making money on this show are the dry cleaners on the upper east side,” Alex observes, referring to the still generous levels of fake blood being thrown around the venue.

“The heart of the show was always going to stay the same, but instead of being really intense in this cauldron church, we have this giant space and it’s really epic.”

It might be getting a reputation for being the messiest show in town, then, but one of the key aims of bringing shows like this to new territories is to spread the name of Manchester as a hot bed for creativity.

Manchester International Festival has certainly shaken things up back home, causing a big cultural stir with its 20-plus original productions, and it has been instrumental in turning eyes normally fixed on London up to Manchester.

But how successful has it been at conveying that message to the world? For Sir Ken, the city’s stamp lives on: “Manchester was absolutely the defining space in the way this production came together,” he says.

“As a city, Manchester can feel very proud of this production. The work we’re doing here is still determined by how that church shaped it.”

Alex agrees. “Obviously the festival is for Manchester but I always thought, growing up, whether it was the Commonwealth Games or Manchester United, the pride that a city has is for what happens in the city but also what the rest of the world thinks about it.

“We’re a small part of this renaissance in Manchester, but I hope we’re an important part of changing the view that it’s just an industrial city in decline or a smoky, rain sodden place.

“People from 54 countries bought tickets for those shows in Manchester and will have gone home and said, ‘Hey, last week I saw this in Manchester’. And now we’re taking some of them around the world with Manchester’s name all over them.”

It’s certainly a view shared by two of the cast members who got their break on the Manchester production. Laura Elsworthy, who plays one of the witches and was working in the Next store in Manchester Arndale before she was cast, says it’s a moment of pride for the city.

“When I heard Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, and Macbeth, and that it’s coming to Manchester, probably for me the last of those things was the most exciting!” she says.

“To see it here, in such a different venue, is exciting. But to have Alex Poots as the man out there talking about it, when he’s such an advocate for Manchester and MIF and so passionate this production, that link stays really strong.”

Mancunian actress Katie West, who plays a gentlewoman in Macbeth and has just been cast as Ophelia in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s new production of 'Hamlet', says shows like this are changing professional perceptions of the city long term.

“I work as an actor and live in Manchester and I still do exactly what I want to do,” she says. “People used to say to me, ‘How do you manage that?’, but Manchester has such a creative buzz about it now.”

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