fri 14/06/2024

Macbeth, St Peter's Church, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Macbeth, St. Peter's Church, Manchester

Macbeth, St. Peter's Church, Manchester

Kenneth Branagh marks a superlative return to Shakespeare

Sleep no more: Kenneth Branagh returns to the Bard, this time as Macbeth Johan Persson

Talk about absence making the heart grow fonder! I'm referring not simply to the news value of Kenneth Branagh making one of his comparatively rare returns to the theatre, this from an actor (now a knight) who in his early years popped up regularly on stage. But the more important reawakening of affection is the palpable one expressed between this protean talent and Shakespeare, his long-standing playwright of choice.

There's much to admire in the Manchester International Festival Macbeth staged in a deconsecrated church and with Branagh as both co-director and star, but nothing more so than the vividly communicated sense of a love affair renewed that for all this play's darkening fury sweeps an audience up into its heady embrace. 

the three witches in the Branagh MacbethThe production, co-directed by the American director-choreographer Rob Ashford, here stepping into the world of the Bard for the first time, is long - 135 minutes, no interval - and yet its hurtling intensity is established at the outset by its star. Scarcely have a particularly inky-faced, wild-eyed trio of weird sisters (pictured above) scuttled from view before Branagh's Thane of Cawdor appears before us as part of a thrilling, rain-drenched battle scene whose muddy, take-no-prisoners ferocity directly recalls the career-making Henry V which launched this actor's career on stage and screen. 

This is a military man at home with swordplay, and Terry King's fights have particular force played out at close quarters with the audience seated either side of the sodden rectangular trough that marks out Christopher Oram's sunken abyss of a set. But left on his own, Branagh locates the gathering self-doubt turned to existential exhaustion that comes to overwhelm Macbeth. Remarking "we are yet but young in deed", Branagh gives off the sense of a martial leader weighed down by the same prophecies that catapult him forward, and the actor takes a telling pause during "canst thou not minister to a mind diseased," Macbeth's condition encapsulated in those two syllables: dis / ease. 

Alex Kingston as Lady MacbethIn his last Shakespearean foray, a startling Sheffield Richard III for Michael Grandage 11 years ago, Branagh found an unexpected pathos in the contrast between a gleeful murderer and a pasty, loveless monarch clearly glimpsed in pain. That acumen in Macbeth leads Branagh to all but choke on the words "told by an idiot" as if they contained within them an awful reproach. Indeed, that sense of a soul cracked wide and unsparingly open seems to be the rending forte of Branagh in middle-age, and I doubt I'm alone in preferring this more introspective talent to the rhetorician he was back in the days before he was able to add to his art the inevitable seasoning provided by life. (What a Hamlet he might now make, come to think of it.)  

And Branagh remains, as ever, a company player, Alex Kingston's ravishing Lady Macbeth (pictured above) filling the distaff spot that once upon a time would have been taken by Samantha Bond - or Emma Thompson. It helps that there truly is a "natural ruby" to Kingston's cheeks, the actress first seen, her back to the house, dressed in soon-to-be-sullied white before an array of candles that are tellingly snuffed out as the play succumbs to darkness. If she falters only in a rather fruity sleepwalking scene, that's of a piece with a staging that loses momentum in its final stretch, the long Malcolm/Macduff face-off here laid low by the sort of generic shoutiness that is never once apparent from Branagh himself. (Among a notably beard-heavy supporting cast, special kudos to Daniel Ings' bawdy, antic Porter: a commanding reinvention of a frequently irksome role.) 

Stepping back, one might question why it is that Branagh has been so chary of late about sharing Shakespeare with the public: Richard III never travelled beyond Sheffield, and I know of no plans for this Macbeth once the sold-out run - playing to 280 a night - finishes on 20 July with a performance that will be screened under the NTLive banner. But that approach, too, may be in keeping with this more introspective Branagh, who has nothing left to prove except an ongoing, and inordinate, empathy with the Shakespearean imagination even as we are left wondering to what battlefield of the human psyche he will lead us next. 

The sense of a soul cracked wide and unsparingly open seems to be the rending forte of Kenneth Branagh in middle-age


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Excellent review - after just having seen this through NFT Live yesterday, I must agree that Branagh was superb. Let's hope he doesn't leave it 11 years before he takes on another Shakespearean role.

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