“Thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell”
One of the big ticket numbers in the Manchester International Festival this year has to be the return of Kenneth Branagh to Shakespeare, with him taking on the role of Macbeth in a production that was surrounded in secrecy and full of advisory warnings to the lucky few with tickets such as “don’t wear any dry-clean only outfits”, “you may not leave your seat once it has started” and possibly the toughest given its 2 hour interval-free running time, “no toilets in the venue”. That venue has now been revealed to be St Peter’s Church in Ancoats, a deconsecrated space used by the Hallé orchestra to rehearse in and whilst the toilets may be five minutes away at Murray’s Mill where tickets are collected from, any fears of emerging from the show drenched in mud and/or blood were left unfounded.
One can see straightaway though why the warnings have been made. The audience is placed in traverse either side of an earth-covered aisle and within moments of the start, a huge battle rages just inches from the audience with rain pouring, mud churning and sparks flying as swords clash. It’s an incredibly visceral start to a frequently breath-taking production – co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford – which successfully marries tradition with innovation, reinvigorating rather than reinventing Shakespeare’s timeless tale of the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Ashford’s eye for theatrical spectacle is combined with Branagh’s acute Shakespearean expertise and together, create something uniquely special.
This is a Macbeth unafraid to show us everything. So that opening battle is fought in front of us rather than just reported, we see an actual dagger floating in the air (courtesy of Paul Kieve’s illusion work and neatly attributed here to the weird sisters), Duncan’s bloody gruesome murder is presented for our delectation, necks are broken, children gutted, nothing spared. The staging of the cauldron scene has to be seen to be believed with its fiery heat and impressively long line of future kings but there’s subtlety too in amongst the bombast. The way in which Duncan’s funeral procession merges seamlessly into Macbeth’s coronation epitomises the maxim ‘the King is dead, long life the King’ – the endless cycle of power ever-revolving.
But along with the headlong rush of events, something the removal of the interval really helps with, is the beautiful detail of a simply great lead performance. It was a genuine privilege to see Branagh work so brilliantly, to get the chance to see just why his reputation as one of the pre-eminent Shakespearean actors of our time is so well deserved. His interpretation shimmers with the freshness of something genuinely new, an insight into Macbeth’s psyche that illuminates just as much as it entertains. This is as power-hungry a man as we’ve ever seen, but what really chills is the way that guilt corrodes him from the inside out, his certainty marked by a slight hesitance over key words, his conscience unable to be assuaged as he retreats into the foetal position. Branagh never leaves us in any doubt as to the bleakness of Macbeth’s world or the turmoil that wracks his very soul.
Against such a performance, it would be easy for an ensemble to coast by on the merits of its star, but a weightily impressive array of actors ensure that this is not the case. Not everyone is as successful of course – Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo is incongruously old, Ray Fearon overeggs Macduff’s grief whilst remaining strong elsewhere and Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth starts off with an exaggerated almost-campness but fortunately calms down with a chilling sense of control. John Shrapnel’s Duncan is an all-too-short fierce delight though and the murderers stand out with some vivid characterisation, again in the briefest of moments that they are allowed. And Alexander Vlahos makes as compelling a Malcolm as I’ve ever seen, giving us a clearly defined maturing process so that his final elevation feels just natural.
The logistics of converting a found space does mean that there are some challenges to the experience though, not least the faff of being seated. The business of allocating numbered seats on the order of purchase means that some lucky people get in the front row but others, who have also paid the flat fee of £65, end up behind pillars in what would be sold as restricted view seats in any regular theatre. A cushion is highly advised as the seating is on wooden blocks and take a bottle of water, it got uncomfortably hot on the evening we were there.
But make no mistake, this was a unique experience and one to be treasured. As about as exciting as Shakespeare can get and anchored by a performance that will live long in the memory. The run is sold out but will be screened via NT Live on 20th July – as with Frankenstein, I suspect much of the intensity and immediacy of the production will be lost in the transfer to film, but it will be a fabulous opportunity to witness Branagh at work.