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Macbeth – Manchester International Festival

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Rob Ashford &Kenneth Branagh

Reviewer: Matthew Nichols

[Rating:5]

Macbeth - Manchester International FestivalWhy stage Macbeth again? Why stage it now? Surely there has to be justification, a reason, or a need to put a distinctive slant on it. It’s not like there’s a dearth of interpretations on stage (Eve Best’s production of The Scottish Play also opened at the Globe only this week) and screen. More pertinently, perhaps, MIF is committed to producing world premieres. Do we need Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth at all, and is the MIF the right vehicle to deliver it? Reluctantly, yes and yes. I’m a bit sceptical about the validity of the venture (though I recognise the enormous publicity generated), but the production itself is world class, and will doubtless thrill cinema audiences when it’s relayed via NT Live next week.

For the uninitiated, then: Macbeth, Thane of Glamis (Kenneth Branagh), a general in the King’s army returns from battle decorated, a hero. His ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston), however, has designs and ambitions on his behalf. Together, driven by the occult, they plot to murder King Duncan (John Shrapnel) as he sleeps in their house. Macbeth’s desire for power spirals out of control as he is faced with disturbing, paranormal visions from beyond the grave, pushing him further into inevitable madness.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s best plays; muscular, lean, and a compelling hybrid of a classical tragedy and a political thriller with a flair for the gruesome. In this beautiful church, especially altered for the performance in a traverse setting, Branagh is entirely compelling. A genuine force with real presence, his descent into madness is engrossing, and moving. Kingston’s performance is a masterclass; sexy, practical and pushy, she takes the Bard’s best female rôle and runs with it. Elsewhere, the witches are wonderfully elemental, and Rosalie Craig makes an impact as Lady Macduff.

Rob Ashford and Branagh’s production brings the elements inside. Lashings of rain, mud, and a real sense of the blasted heath. It’s a bloodthirsty take on the play, too; the dagger bleeds mid-air. Neil Austin’s lighting is astonishing, and a total sense of the outside world looming enhances proceedings. Swords clash, sparks fly, candles are lit, and there’s a genuine sense of Gothic. It’s all so very exciting. You collect your tickets from an appointed location and are led (in your own clan) to this most brilliant of venues.

It’s not just flashy, there’s substance too. Branagh’s handling of the “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is mesmerising. Quiet, contemplative and a sense of visceral pain. The verse speaking is brilliant, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design is haunting and evocative. Does it demand to be seen? Yes. Does it earn its place in the MIF line-up? Yes, by virtue of audacity, a bombastic sense of spectacle, and a thrilling handling of the text.

Branagh and Ashford complement each other well; the former adds rigour, gravitas, and a sense of true star quality (Olivier via Brad Pitt, if you like.) The latter gives proceedings a kinetic rhythm and works hard to anchor the action with purpose in this site-specific reading. The tickets sold out in 9 minutes, but there are still seats available at NT Live screenings in cinemas. Close-up on camera, this will be a treat all over again. For all concerned, then, a triumph. I eat my sceptical hat, and envy those with tickets.

Photo: Johan Persson

Runs until Sunday 21st July, with an NT Live performance in cinemas on Saturday 20th July.

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