Macbeth (Manchester International Festival)

Kenneth Branagh’s return to the stage in a muddy and bloody production of ‘The Scottish Play’ more than lives up to expectations, says Dave Cunningham

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth
Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

It’s hard to avoid a degree of cynicism about the centrepiece of the 2013 Manchester International Festival. The venue (to whose secret location the audience is escorted) may be audacious and atmospheric but its limited capacity creates a ticket scarcity that denies most theatregoers the chance to see the play live. But then Macbeth begins and all doubts vanish.

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.

The harsh cackling of a demonic trio of witches interrupts the gentle chanting of monks. They drop us right in the centre of a raging battle in the pouring rain. 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.

There’s a strong sense of corruption in the play and few characters emerge unsoiled either metaphorically or literally. The cast wade through a field of mud that bisects Christopher Oram’s set of a rough wooden fort with the audience seated in church pews on either side. Macbeth reaches for the dagger of the mind but ends up with a fistful of muck. During their final confrontation Macbeth and his former friend Banquo (Jimmy Yuill) are separated by a vast expanse of dirt.

This is a period production in which the supernatural elements of the play are emphasised. Alex Kingston plays Lady Macbeth as someone with a firm belief in the paranormal; she is clearly terrified of the spirits she invokes and convinced that they will appear. Mind you it is easy to share these beliefs with the marvellous effects and illusions (including a blazing wall of fire) created by Paul Kieve.

Branagh’s version of Macbeth is motivated less by greed and ambition and more by a sense of entitlement. He is simply taking what he thinks he is worth and has a veteran soldier’s contempt for untried striplings such as the king’s son. And Branagh’s dialogue with Kingston is less about a man being pushed towards actions he is reluctant to take and more like an internal monologue of someone who has already made up his mind and is assessing the implications.

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. It is this nihilism and inability to connect to others that enables the character to commit atrocities. This interpretation gives Macbeth’s final speech a deep intensity. Branagh’s broken voice and hunched lonely figure perfectly captures the moment of self-awareness when Macbeth realises all his sacrifices and crimes have been futile and achieved nothing.

This is an amazing production that deserves fully the distinction of being the first theatrical production from Manchester to be broadcast to cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live initiative (on 20 July). Ironic that a show in which the lack of belief is such an integral part should renew your faith in what can be achieved in the theatre.

– Dave Cunningham