This year’s Manchester International Festival saw a new staging of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role. This limited run was performed in a deconsecrated church, and, with some 280 seats per performance, sold out in less than 10 minutes.
Fortunately, the National Theatre, through its NT Live program, broadcast a performance of this play to movie theaters in the UK, and will be broadcasting it several more times to theaters in the UK and abroad. I was able to see a performance of this production in my local cinema in York.
The “stage” for the performance was the choir and the apse of the church, with spectators sitting in pews on either side of the choir. As the production opens, the weird sisters have their brief scene through open doors at one end of the church, then, as drums and cymbals resound, lights flash and rain falls on the dirt-covered stage area as a great battle takes place. This battle isn’t seen in the original play, as the next scene is where Macbeth and Banquo discuss their victory. But this production uses the battle as the starting point for the action, and rightly so. Dead bodies litter the battleground during the next scene, and the dirt, which has become mud, is a silent yet present leitmotiv throughout the play, reminding us that the earth, the land, is what is coveted.
This Macbeth is fast-paced, with the play coming in at around 2 hours, and the tempo nearly breathless for much of the duration. Actors come and go at either end of the choir, or through openings between two sections of seats on either side, and scene changes are quick and fluid.
Macbeth is a small play, in that much of the action concerns only a few characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the king Duncan at first; later, after Macbeth kills Duncan to become king himself, Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff are key characters.
For much of the play, this breakneck tempo has the action moving ahead quickly, until things suddenly begin to drag, in Act IV, Scene iii, Malcolm and Macduff discuss overthrowing Macbeth, and Macduff learns of the death of his wife and children. He vows revenge, and together, they raise an army to restore Malcolm to the throne.
This long scene drags a bit, and erases the tempo that had been maintained since the beginning of the play. Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm is stiff, and cannot keep the action moving ahead, though Ray Fearon’s Macduff is brilliant in his grief and anger.
Kenneth Branagh excels in this role; his physical and verbal prowess are both outstanding. His diction is excellent, and in spite of his fast speaking, he makes Shakespeare’s word shine. I was less impressed by Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth. I felt she was too frenetic early in the play, before Macbeth killed Duncan, to pull off the madness in Act V, Scene i. I think there needed to be more contrast, and she over-acted in the latter scene, being far too obviously mad.
I particularly liked the casting of three young women as the weird sisters. Generally cast as old women, as fairy-tail witches, these three young women were powerful in their dark dresses and makeup.
While the choice of the theater as stage was excellent, it introduced two problems. The first was unexpected; Britain was in its hottest summer in seven years, and many of the spectators could be seen fanning themselves with their programs. On the sultry night when this was filmed, together with the rankness and humidity within following the rain at the beginning of the play, it must have been uncomfortable. But those fanning programs were often distracting; several cameras were set up on one side of the choir, showing the actors with the seats on the other side behind them.
The second problem was the length of the “stage” area. This led to many scenes where actors walked, or even ran, from one end to the other, for no apparent reason. In Act IV, Scene iii, for example, Malcolm and Macduff enter the stage on the apse, and Malcolm walks all the way to the other end of the stage to talk to Macduff, who remains stationary. This occurred several times in the performance; it was as if the directors felt that the entire stage needed to be used, but there was no dramatic justification for all that movement.
Nevertheless, the play was masterfully filmed, with, as I mentioned, several cameras on one side of the choir, and a few others above the choir and in various locations. Aside from the occasional shot which began out of focus, the only production oddity was certain shots where a wide-angle lens was used to keep actors far apart on the stage in focus, which led to the distant actor being distorted. When this wide-angle lens panned, it was also a bit dizzy-making.
But the NT Live team managed to bring to the screen this powerful production from a cramped set, giving the feeling, even to those in movie theaters, of being in the middle of the action. This is an excellent Macbeth, and one worth seeing if possible.