Something Wicked This Way Runs

New York Times, 8 July 2013
By Ben Brantley
* Thanks Virginia

The road to hell is a speedway in the exciting new production of “Macbeth” now at the Manchester International Festival, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. Staged in a deconsecrated Romanesque church here by Mr. Branagh and the American director Rob Ashford, this intermissionless two-hour production creates a world in which everybody seems to be running — and I mean running — scared, not least its homicidal protagonist.

The formula for survival here is to keep moving, keep killing and keep watching your back, because you don’t know who’s about to plant a knife in it. As the thane who would be king, Mr. Branagh is forever scanning the shadows, eyes alternately narrowed and preternaturally wide, for evidence of things seeable and otherwise. Gasping for breath and stumbling as fast as he can, this Macbeth is trying to outrace the night. As if that were possible.

Those who have followed Mr. Branagh’s career in theater and film may wonder if he’s looking over his shoulder partly to see if the ghosts of Macbeths past, present and future are gaining on him. Though he made his international reputation as a promising heir to the über-Shakespearean (and matinee idol) Laurence Olivier with acclaimed and accessible movie versions of “Henry V” (1989) and “Hamlet” (1996), Mr. Branagh’s last Shakespearean stage performance was as Richard III more than a decade ago.

Since then Macbeth has become the role du jour for classically trained actors, including James McAvoy (who played it most vigorously in London only a few months ago) and Alan Cumming, who is appearing on Broadway performing every part in the tragedy, presented as the product of one delusional mind. Another version, directed by Eve Best, opened last week at Shakespeare’s Globe, while Ethan Hawke is scheduled to wear the bloody crown this fall at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Branagh asserts his claim to the usurped throne of Scotland with an utterly assured and intelligent portrait of a desperate and less-than-brilliant man, in a production that steers clear of topical flourishes and postmodern interpolation. Like Mr. Branagh’s most appealing film, “Henry V,” this “Macbeth” is a crowd pleaser in the best sense. Mr. Ashford and Mr. Branagh have given us a straightforwardly medieval “Macbeth” that’s as loaded with action, intrigue and varieties of lust as “The White Queen,” the War of the Roses potboiler that’s currently entrancing British television audiences.

Not that this “Macbeth” inspires hoots like the unwittingly campy “White Queen.” The only time theatergoers relax into laughter during this “Macbeth” is, as might be expected, during the scene in which a drunken porter discourses on the effects of alcohol. But the titters that erupt then are uneasy. Ever since those three gray-faced witches burst through the walls in the very first scene, the audience is conditioned to remain on guard, rather like the characters onstage.

About that stage: designed by Christopher Oram, it’s essentially a single wide corridor that runs the length of St. Peter’s Church, a 19th-century relic of the Industrial Revolution in the Ancoats mill district of Manchester. This performance space is paved with dirt, which soon turns into mud. (Warning: The elemental special effects include fire and, more pervasively, rain.)

We, the audience, seated on tiered wooden benches whose hardness I was never aware of until the show was over, are perched right over the killing fields. (Theatergoers are instructed not to wear clothes they mind getting dirty.) The effect is rather like being upfront at a bull fight, where you worry you might get in the way of a raging toro.

In this case it’s human bodies that are flung against the walls that separate you from the action, making the seating area tremble. During the storm that drenches the opening battle scene, the soldiers leave dirty handprints on those walls as they slide to the ground, abiding and haunting reminders of the casualties of war.

Set off by a chancel at one end, where a constellation of votive candles burn wanly and in vain, this linear stage is a limited space. Yet as lighted by Neil Austin, it feels both infinite and claustrophobic, in the way that deep darkness often does. (Patrick Doyle’s immersive ecclesiastical music and Christopher Shutt’s sound enhance this impression.) I have never seen a “Macbeth” in which “light thickens” so obscuringly and illuminatingly.

When the sunlight finally streams through a rose window for the coronation scene, it is pale and watery. Otherwise, you have the sense that everyone onstage is straining to see through muck and murk, whether indoors or out. Partial vision, and the hard lessons of war-torn Scotland, keep all the characters on edge, their fight-or-flight mechanisms in overdrive. You never know, after all, who’s lurking nearby, as servants, soldiers and that macabre threesome — an exceptionally lithe and orgasmic set of witches — keep materializing at unwelcome and unexpected moments.

No wonder that Duncan (John Shrapnel), the doomed king, is harsh, even in benediction. As for Lady Macbeth (played by Alex Kingston as a ripe beauty going to seed), she’s a study in barely repressed hysteria from the beginning. Times being what they are, no one else sees her behavior as unusual, including her husband, who is very clearly in her sexual thrall, especially after all those weeks away on duty.

Mr. Branagh gives us a Macbeth who is a product of the mortal peril and chaos of war, accustomed to killing first and considering later. In a reversal of the classic Macbeth, this one speaks his early soliloquies less with horrified wonder than with the briskness of a military strategist who can’t afford to consider the emotional toll his actions might take on him.

It’s as if he were trying to stay ahead of full consciousness of his bloody deeds. Sometimes his mind catches up with him, and the pauses in Mr. Branagh’s delivery gape like bleeding wounds. His soldier’s mask melts at such moments, and because of the nearness of the actors to the audience, you can read the madness in the face beneath with unusual and alarming lucidity. (This “Macbeth,” which lends itself naturally to cinematic close-ups, will be broadcast in cinemas later this month as part of the National Theater Live program.)

The impeccably drilled ensemble members — who include Ray Fearon and Alexander Vlahos in impassioned performances as Macbeth’s most worthy adversaries — sustain a headlong pace without sacrificing clarity. Throughout you have the sense not only of events but also of entire cycles of history succeeding upon one another rapidly and inexorably. Mr. Ashford and Mr. Branagh make inspired use of long, formal processions, both for the coronation scene and, brilliantly, for Macbeth’s vision of the unending line of heirs bred by the murdered Banquo (Jimmy Yuill).

Such stagecraft gives a frightful echo to Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy toward the end. We’ve seen what he’s seen, an endless, doomed pageant that keeps marching into the same black hole. But time does not, as Macbeth would have it, creep in a “petty pace.” Fast, furious and unstoppable, time keeps rushing forward in this “Macbeth,” knocking the breath out of everyone, audience included.

“Macbeth” continues through July 21 at the Manchester International Festival;

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