NT Live: Macbeth (from Manchester International Festival)

A trip last week to see the much-lauded production of the Scottish play transmitted live from St Peter’s Church, Manchester, starring Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Ray Fearon, John Shrapnel and a hard-working cast who keep this tale of murder and madness zipping along in the deconsecrated space.

The opening scene is one of pure war – in place of hearsay of Macbeth’s bravery, we see it for ourselves, alongside the betrayal of Scotland’s good and great by the Thane of Cawdor.  The weird witches appear from large doors at one end of the aisle, croaking both Macbeth’s path to greatness and his doom.

Branagh, who also co-directs, is a fine technician, but I never quite believe in his characters, and that’s the case here.  Compare his mighty Thane who will be king hereafter with Alex Kingston’s womanly Lady M, who ends up horrified, disturbed, and almost possessed by guilt as she sleepwalks.  As Macduff, the former soap opera actor Ray Fearon is superb in a portrayal which sees the soldier break down and feel his grief ‘as a man’ – the most touching and powerful interpretation of the role I have seen in many versions of the play.

Amongst the smaller roles, John Shrapnel is a warrior Duncan (and also reappears as Macbeth’s servant and the holy Father who talks of the horses eating each other), and Alexander Vlahos is certainly one to watch as Malcolm.  Jimmy Yuill plays Banquo with some bluster and makes a powerful ghost when it comes to the banquet scene where Macbeth’s ‘safe’ haven starts to crumble.

The best part of this production (viewed in the cinema in HD), is the set and the ambience – the rain and the mud of battles, the use of the church windows and space to generate the image of a dagger, or odd colours which illuminate the earth-coloured space as Malcolm makes his false confession to Macduff.  The church and its candles acts as a backdrop for Lady Macbeth’s prayers, the murder of Duncan (rarely seen on stage), and the interaction with the play of the charcoal-faced witches.

Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have created a worthy Macbeth in a ‘found space’ which works brilliantly, despite Branagh’s lack of real engagement in the lead.  There’s much to enjoy here, and I envy those few who got one of the coveted tickets to see this live.