The dilemma for Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh in delivering a new Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival is how to create a fresh concept for their take on the play without muddying this most shuddering of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
And they have succeeded in doing just that on a number of levels: firstly, in their choice of setting, the disused St. Peter’s Church, on Manchester’s eastern fringe, where the audience sit like banner-wavers at a medieval joust, surveying action which surges from end to end of a narrow channel. Secondly, by creating as earthy a stage re-evocation of the mid-11th century as I can remember, the battles enacted in underfoot mud which oozes its way into the very palaces.
Their use of the erstwhile church setting creates a quasi candle-lit location where incense and prayers for the dead seem irrevocably to cense, censor and censure the collapsing unholy tyrant.
The other main achievement is the way Branagh treats Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, King (not Thane, or as Malcolm would have it, Earl) of Moray and Fortriu, seeing him as a nigh-on clinical depressive: Branagh plays down the opening lines to the slightly too hyperactive witches (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan), virtually ceding the stage to Jimmy Yuill’s impressively resolute Banquo: it takes a time before this Macbeth gets motoring at all.
Easily Branagh’s strongest moments are the banquet, where Banquo wafts – unnervingly – literally through the table; and rather than in, say, the dagger outburst, it’s in Macbeth’s lesser known speeches, where Branagh steels himself to the sticking place and sheds light on passages we scarcely ever knew existed. We are the gainers.
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow….’, where, as so often, he neurotically polishes and treats like a verminous cockroach some significant hitherto minor word, is quite superb. This Macbeth is infirm of purpose from day one. Every killing – especially the Macduff boy, beautifully alternated by Pip Pearce and (here) Harry Polden – quite some death – is hastening his own end. Ashford and Branagh milk the battles and the murders for all they’re worth – a deliberate decision: all are slaveringly prolonged, so you get the gore in your pores.
The murderers (Daniel Ings, Stuart Neal, Jordan Dean) do their job well, though Fleance’s escape (Patrick Neil Doyle) is less good than his spectacularly effective return with his royal heirs, who gurgitate forth from the same heaving mud like ghastly Tolkienesque full-grown embryos. Benny Young’s terse Gaelic Doctor and Katie West’s already notable Lady-in-Waiting possibly make more impression in the sleepwalking scene than the lady herself. ‘Perfumes of Arabia’ and even ‘take my milk for gall’ rather get lost. But Alex Kingston, a touching Hero and Cordelia for the RSC, shows her range and mettle by a sizzling, unwavering performance during the crucial murder scene itself, easily outshining her feckless spouse.
If anyone steals the show from Branagh’s wavering monster – he is the one doing the real sleep-walking, although Ray Fearon’s Macduff is a noble creation, and his tearful outburst unusually visceral, the surprise hero is Alexander Vlahos’s Malcolm – the best I’ve seen in decades: a real anointed King, not a sudden shove-up (and soon to reign for a very decent 35 years).
The tartaned thanes are fine but unmemorable, Norman Bowman’s Ross (a role immortalised for me by Ian Bannen) arguably best. Rather it is Macbeth’s real-life cousin, Duncan who is the other revelation: John Shrapnel – what a joy to see such a fine Shakespearian actor summoned back to (cruelly abbreviated) greatness. Doubling Shrapnel, with his magnificent speaking voice, as the thunder and lightning, croaking ravens scene Old Man was inspired; trebling him as Seyton without creating some well-conceived coup from the paralleling seems a clumsy directorial misstep.
Blazing white light assaults – slivers through wooden slats, sudden bathings through a plain rose window (Neil Austin)– and an apt, restrained but haunting Sound design (Christopher Shutt, to a score by Patrick Doyle) maintain the tension miraculously. Christopher Oram’s costumes often score; but it is the nastily splitting table and the witches’ first saints’-niche arrival that grab the design honours.
For Branagh, all recessive brown plaid and furrowed brow, this is a classic performance to set beside his early Henry V or Hamlet, as well as his filmic forays. A terrific, nervy, stylishly unpleasant piece of theatre.
Macbeth will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 20th July 2013.