Manchester International Festival: Macbeth

The Stage, 8 July 2013
By Michael Coveney

Kenneth Branagh hasn’t played in Shakespeare for more than ten years, but his technical assurance and deceptive fluency and naturalness remain unaltered. He’s not an obvious Macbeth, perhaps, but he finds the heart of darkness in the role with chilling accuracy.

From the minute Banquo’s ghost appears in the crack of the dining table and drives him over the edge, Macbeth is a steely, psychopathic monster. This is a man who proves most villainous in clinging to power, not achieving it - though we do actually see him stabbing King Duncan (John Shrapnel) in the back at bed-time.

And in the deconsecrated Anglican church of St Peter’s in Ancoats - rehearsal home of the Halle Orchestra - we virtually eavesdrop on his subtly graded slide into the abyss. An audience of 218 is shepherded in groups named after the characters - I was in Caithness - from nearby Murrays’ Mill into hard pews on either side of a traverse acting area.

This is a muddy field - I dread to think of the dry-cleaning bills - on which the cast fight, squelch and slither, boarded off from the audience by a wooden stockade, as if in a corrida. Christopher Oram’s design suspends a large crucifix from the ceiling, lit by daylight (clever stuff by designer Neil Austin). This comes into its own in the ‘England’ scene, where a boyish Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos) tests Macduff (an energetically splendid Ray Fearon) with his false confession, backed by an illuminated stained-glass window.

'Macbeth' in a former church always works - it did for Michael Boyd and Iain Glen at the Tron, Glasgow, and again for Boyd and Jonathan Slinger at the Royal Shakespeare Company more recently. Lady Macbeth - an electrifying, highly wrought Alex Kingston - silently lights candles throughout the opening fight scenes, Duncan’s murder is described as “sacrilegious”, and the prophesies and visions of the witches are deliberately and dangerously secular.

Co-director Rob Ashford has brought his musical theatre staging experience to bear significantly on these eruptions, which are balletic, tempered in fire and genuinely spooky. And the visions of “seed of Banquo” kings emerge from one large royal cloak, like tentacles of some nightmarish, supernatural octopus.

Terry King has arranged some fantastic fights, too, the play opening in a downpour with a stage full of kilted, bearded warriors knocking the bejasus out of each other and swords sending sparks flying through the air. The phantom dagger is seen dancing in the dusk (Paul Kieve is the illusion consultant), and there’s a wonderful scene of brutal historical transition as Duncan’s funeral procession elides into the coronation.

Branagh is mesmerisingly particular about charting the psychological story of a man who got lucky through destiny and made the luck stick - for a short time - by learning to manage it. It’s terrifying, in fact, how easily he takes to tyrannical ruthlessness and drifts into a disastrous limbo of destruction and despair.

This great performance is sold out for all dates, but the last, on July 20, is beamed as it happens by National Theatre Live to cinemas throughout the UK. See it.

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