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Michael Coveney: Branagh wins battle of murky Macbeths in Manchester

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I really enjoyed my first visit to the Manchester International Festival, not least because of the sunshine, the camaraderie and the festival atmosphere - set for me at a tremendous opening night party at the festival pavilion in Albert Square - and the mini-adventure of finding Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth in a deconsecrated church in the soon-to-be regenerated L S Lowry-land of factories and mills on the other side of the Great Ancoats Road.

Macbeth had been sold out for weeks - just over 200 seats available for each performance in the once Anglican church used by the Halle Orchestra for rehearsals. So, even though the performance is broadcast on 20 July on National Theatre Live, there was a festival elitism about the event which suited this play, and production, and the proximity of audience and actors.

It was Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, up close and personal in Trevor Nunn's production in the late 1970s, who first exploited the whispered, spooky, night-time properties of the play to the full; Branagh's production, co-directed by musical theatre maestro Rob Ashford, has a more theatrical, mock ecclesiastical dimension - stained glass windows, processions, terrific fights on a traverse stage area filled with puddles of rain and mud, a spooky soundtrack and fiery cauldron for the witches.

The audience is crammed onto hard benches, facing each other on either side of this fateful corrida, and after we see Alex Kingston's Lady M gracefully lighting a myriad of candles in the church's apse, this mud pit erupts with the most brutal and exciting battle scenes in ages, full of bearded bullies in kilts, sparking, flashing broadswords, stabbings and blood-boltered heroes, not least Macbeth, "Bellona's bride."

Kenneth Branagh in the poster for Macbeth

It's sometimes a mystery how Macbeth morphs from military hero to psychopathic tyrant, but Branagh charts this exceptionally well, every inch a reluctant loyalist until set on a course of power-seeking in the accidental encounter with the three witches (here played as screeching, unnatural hags and harpies) and egged on by his wife, who you feel hasn't quite realised the consequences.

Alex Kingston as Lady M indicates clearly that her plan is to renew the marriage as much as to seize power, but it's Branagh's thoughtful, haunted thane who moves quickly from murdering the grooms, supposedly witnesses to Duncan's assassination (which we see in full goriness) to identifying the dissatisfied curs and low-life who will form his murderous agency of terror.

Early on, all the actors, including our Ken, seem to be chopping far too many lines in half, losing the knack (or not acquiring it) of Shakespearean verse speaking. Even the RSC isn't that bad. But first John Shrapnel (as Duncan) and then Branagh himself, evolving into a hypnotic, rhythmic fluency as he bites the bullet of nocturnal nightmares, show the way.

Great use is made of what might have been a restrictive stage area: the death of Duncan becomes a ritualistic prelude to the new despot's coronation; the organ loft in the stockade is where the Porter (younger than usual in Daniel Ings' version) despatches the importunate knockers at his gate with mimetic facility, and where Alex Kingston sleep walks, statuesquely; Branagh even fights Ray Fearon's outstanding Macduff running backwards through the sludge, but fighting forwards.

I returned to London and to Murray mania surrounding little Andy's fantastic Wimbledon final victory - a triumph for bionic man Murray, if not for the grace and passion factors embodied by Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, the two greatest players of our era. The last British Wimbledon champion, 77 years ago, was called Fred Perry, a name shared by my maternal granddad, an illegal bookie; the only racket our Fred ever picked up was his own business.

Scottish Andy was the filling in my weekend Scottish play sandwich. For I ignored all colleagues dire warnings about the Globe Macbeth and went along anyway last evening. Eve Best's production was disappointing, and doubly so because she's been such a luminous and fascinating Lady M hersef at this address a decade ago, playing opposite her then boyfriend Jasper Britton.

It starts so promisingly, with three terrific witches whose every word you can understand, which is more than can be said about the Manchester trio. And there's a most original Porter from Bette Bourne as a red-nosed alcoholic vaudevillian.

But there's no real oomph to the show, and certainly nothing of the excitement in Manchester. Joseph Millson is a tender and good-looking but seriously over-parted Macbeth while Samantha Spiro is an unlikely spouse for such a dork and his strange predilections; the marriage is a non-starter, which undermines the later scenes completely.

Both the Globe and the MIF only run to empty goblets at the banquet. What rotten hosts these upstart royals are! Both Macbeths say they have "scorched" the snake not killed it (instead of "scotched").

And poor old Sam Spiro gets throttled like Nigella Lawson by Charles Saatchi when Millson tells her that light thickens and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood; serves him right, then, that Stuart Bowman's earnest but colourless Macduff tweaks his neck - breaks it, in fact - after their rather feeble fight with little axes. The traitor's head stays resolutely on his dead body, though, while Branagh's gets stuffed in a potato bag and slung against the stockade.