Review Round-Up: Branagh returns in 'thrilling' MIF Macbeth
Manchester International Festival's production of Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, opened last week, and runs until 20 July
…Kenneth Branagh (who performs in the title role) and his co-director Rob Ashford have created an engrossing production that is thrilling while retaining the classic elements of the play and drawing out some new motivation for the central character… Terry King's action sequences are so vivid that sparks fly during the sword fights and you flinch as Macbeth brains his enemies inches from the audience… The venue offers a stunning backdrop of stained glass, wonderful acoustics and an incredibly intimate setting. More significantly the deconsecrated church raises the issue of faith, or rather its absence, in motivating Macbeth. Branagh's Macbeth is an isolated individual with no spiritual commitment who believes only in himself… This is an amazing production...
Branagh… reminds us what an intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor he is. The production has many fine qualities as well as one or two dubious ones… what I admire about Branagh is that he is not afraid to do a spot of old-fashioned acting. The highest compliment I can pay him is that at times he evoked golden memories of Olivier in the role… There are other good performances. Alex Kingston's Lady Macbeth starts as a blazing power-seeker and ends as a burnt-out case. Ray Fearon's Macduff is bold and vigorous, John Shrapnel's Duncan is a notably martial monarch and Rosalie Craig cuts quite a dash as Lady Macduff… this is an exciting production that shows why Branagh is such a fine Shakespearean actor… That's real acting.
…in this thrilling, cinematically fluid account of Macbeth… Branagh, who co-directs with Rob Ashford as well as taking the lead, doesn't hold back in plunging us into the harrowing grime of battle… While the evening, which hurtles by in little over two hours, brilliantly captures the battle-hardened nature of the world Macbeth inhabits, Branagh, a rugged 52, shows us the vestigial civilisation beneath the martial exterior… Everything seems of an equally potent, atmospheric piece – and Branagh is expertly matched by Alex Kingston as a goading Lady Macbeth whose fortitude finally succumbs to a delirium that answers his own…
It seems Ashford and Branagh also think that acting out as much slaughter as possible adds oomph. Rather than being reported, the play's opening war is waged before us, a mass of clanging swords under pouring rain… Certainly, this production has dramatic thrills. And yet the overall effect is curiously dull... With honorable exceptions – including John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill, both sturdy as Duncan and Banquo – much of the acting is lame or hammy. Alex Kingston's Lady Macbeth, alas, borders on the embarrassing, acting vampish with no conviction. Few brilliantly insightful new interpretations emerge, although it is notable that Branagh's Macbeth is stammeringly guilt-wracked when ordering Banquo's assassination… Though it may strike some as great classical acting, his performance is a curate's egg, in truth…
It is a sweaty venue and sometimes in an unbroken two-and-a-quarter hours the more discursive political discussions lag and you guiltily long to get back to the horrors. Christopher Oram's design makes the most of the church's supernatural gloom… There are some oddities, the chief of which is that often Branagh, mutteringly naturalistic, seems to be giving a classic screen-friendly rendering while more resonantly "stage" performances echo off the arches from his peerlessly intense Lady (Alex Kingston, thrilling) and from noble Ray Fearon as Macduff and Jimmy Yuill as a canny greybeard Banquo. But when Branagh quietly speaks "Tomorrow and tomorrow . . ." he gives it such mature, late-won understanding that much is forgiven.