Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

A return to the mud of his Henry V movie. The opening war battle scene is played under unseen overhead sprinklers which drench the ‘dirt’ floor of the enclosed elongated rectangular playing area turning it to mire for the rest of the performance. This, gives an unexpected reality and “Hell is murky” atmosphere to the rest of the play, soiling footwear and women’s characters dress bottoms, affecting all the play’s characters with Macbeth’s corruption and that of the various bloody action. Contextually risky and very effective.

The stage, as such is in a deconsecrated Manchester church with the audience facing each other, playing witness on either side of the boarded, arena-like playing area. This is a production that puts audience engagingly close to the action, where they may even get splattered! So a wonderful atmosphere for brave audience souls. An ‘in-your-face production which draws the audience in, an effect duplicated by camera close-ups for this special filmed broadcast of a live performance. It needs to be added that the sound is uniformly even and audible with no ‘drops’ and that there are well-edited multiple camera point of views (including an overhead one) which put the movie audience right in the action, too.

The performance is live and passionate on the part of all the cast. The theatrical declaiming of the opening scenes may throw some movie fans off, but there are some appropriately chosen ‘naturalistic’ conversational scenes within the play as a whole. Ironically, the loudest, most powerfully moving moment comes from Ray Fearon as Macduff hearing the news of his family’s murder.

Branagh, himself, makes a perfect Macbeth, delivering the old familiar lines and speeches with a reverence for the poetry along with the unfolding inner reality of his increasingly unhinged character. In particular, his “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is a beautiful gem and he can hardly, chokingly, utter the final “nothing”. Overall, his choices reveal the innumerable changing moods of Macbeth with the expected Branagh stylistic energy and familiar flair.

Alex Kingston’s unstable Lady Macbeth, John Shrapnel’s too-naïve Duncan, Jimmy Yuill’s older but effective Banquo are all passionately and convincingly rendered in a production which gallops toward its necessary tragic end, enmeshing good characters and country all. Strong memorable scenes of note include the opening Henry V-ish battlefield scene, Banquo’s ghost scene (played around a table inserted in the arena), the clearly unrighteous murder of Duncan (played somewhat slow-motionly beside candles under a hanging cross at one end of the church/arena), Macbeth’s return to the witches and their amazing apparitions, Lady Macduff’s scene, and the key interview between Malcolm and Macduff.

This is also a vigorous, rhythmical production of the Scottish play which will, audibly, remind listeners of an excellent audiobook production. The voices and tones achieve a ballet-like effect which is mirrored by the production’s wonderful physical blocking. As audience, you will automatically be reminded of the numerous memorable lines and speeches of this oft-studied play. But there is nothing flat in the totally fresh readings given by the co-directors (Branagh and Rob Ashford) and actors. Every word simply matters. The poetry wins out.

Branagh has not done a Shakespeare in over ten years, but this was a role (like Lear, which he will likely, inevitably, do) he was destined to play for stage, screen, and posterity. This production yanks the play away from any memories of the sensationalistic Polanski version, and totally reinvents and reinvigorates it with an incredibly risky, powerful stage version. This is a Macbeth which feels very close to the play as it might have been performed in Shakespeare’s time. A truly remarkable feat and triumph by National Theatre Live.

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