Monday, 22 July 2013


(The Titantic sinks, Romeo and Juliet die, the plot line of Macbeth is another one of those that can be talked about without needing a spoiler warning, right? If not, SPOILERS)

Nine minutes. 

Nine minutes is all it took for the tickets to see Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival (MIF) sell out. I’m not sure if it was an honest mistake that they all went on sale at the same time instead of being slowly made available, the way festival and music concert tickets are, or if the organisers perhaps did not thinks the citizens of Manchester would be terribly interested in seeing five time Oscar nominated Kenneth Branagh prance about in a skirt while his wife went mad. 

This was never meant to be a production seen by thousands, Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford chose a de-consecrated Anglican church with a capacity of 281 as their stage.  Very quickly though MIF saw an opportunity to take the magic further and announced a “Big Screen Relay” a live broadcast of the play onto a giant open air screen in Manchester City centre. I snaffled two of those tickets up for a very reasonable £8 each and took my dearly beloved to celebrate our third anniversary. It didn’t take long for the organisers to realise though that they had again underestimated just how excited the Great British public were for this. NT Live to the rescue.

National Theatre Live have been broadcasting plays from the National Theatre to cinemas all over the UK, and eventually the world, since 2009. In that time it has beamed out 25 different productions of everything from an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and has reached audiences of over 1.3 million people all over the world [x]. It was one of the bravest and most magnificent leaps of faith that any business, never mind one in an industry as faltering as The Arts, has made in the past decade. Can you imagine the pitch? “Well, plays are just like films, right? Expect you watch them all at once and just pretend not to see the scene changes. What if we filmed a play, like onstage with an audience watching, and put it on at the cinema and people could watch it like a film.” I’m so glad they took the gamble, when they broadcast This House earlier this year 45,000 people got to see it in one night. I don’t know how many people were watching it in cinemas, but there were a few thousand of us sat on the tarmac of the Bridgewater Hall car park.

Macbeth is not easy role; the reluctance to accept his own desires, making a devil’s pact with his wife, the haunting of knowing what he has done and the slow descent into a paranoid madness. Branagh captured it. You could see the cogs turning as his character made decisions, his whole body changed as he portrayed the aging man who took himself from Thane to uneasy King. Mac Bethad was a real king of Scotland after all who reigned for about 17 years, in films there are many tricks to age actors portraying a large chunk of time but it takes a real crafts man to show it happening by himself. This was Branagh’s first turn as Macbeth but he brought twenty-nine years of Shakespearean love and experience with him. He was not afraid of the language or of experimenting with it, he avoided just waxing lyrically in iambic pentameter but brought out the deep feelings in the poetry. It was a joy to watch a master at work.

I first studied Macbeth in school when I was 12, I went to an all girls school with more than its fair share of ambitious potential tyrants, so when we read it there was a lot of focus on Lady Macbeth. (Sidenote: I’ve just realised when I was twelve was ten years ago. Aging, urgh, it sneaks up on you.) Alex Kingston played Lady M, I know her best as River Song in the re-booted Dr Who. I had high expectations, I always do for that role because it’s one that I’ve gone back to over the years, she’s the person in the play I find most interesting, and it’s a role I would love to perform one day. I was not blown away by Ms Kingston’s portrayal.

Lady Macbeth convinces her husband of what must be done, she is the one with ruthless ambitions for him; and they are for him, she wants Macbeth to be all that he can be- King of Scotland- the fact that she would be his Queen is not her motivation. She holds him together and tries to cover up the cracks appearing in his psyche but she is consumed with her own guilt, guilt that is heavily repressed until it is clear her marriage is a broken thing. Lady Macbeth starts as the calculating and rational woman commanding her husband for his own sake, she ticks slowly towards madness. For me Kingston’s performance was a little to manic from the start, she was passionate and feisty and all good things in River Song but I didn’t quite see the strong metal I was looking for.

The other standout performance was Ray Fearon as Macduff. His heart wrenching howls of pain as he received the news of his own personal tragedy, the charged dialogue as he slowly crumpled down to lie huddled on the floor took my breath away. It was a vivid contrast to Branagh and his slow disconnection from everything that happened to him. The pace of the whole show kept you on the edge of your picnic blanket, there were moments I wished they'd allowed an extra second of pause between scenes but it brought a sense of the political chaos that was unfolding to the forefront.

The staging taking place in a church worked well, the audience was seated on both sides of a wide, mud filled aisle that served as the only set. They were very much in the thick of it with deaths taking place what sometimes appeared to close for comfort as audience members could be seen leaning back and recoiling. It was also very hot, the constant fanning of programmes made certain that this was a live show and a real audience, not one that had been prepped to stay static and think about the film cameras all around them. I’m glad I saw it in the open air though, there was something about the sky naturally darkening, the daylight and city noises fading that added to the magic.

There was love, treachery, swords fights, great choreography, impeccable acting and all in all 4.5 stars. Go and see it.

NTLive will be bringing Macbeth back, find out more HERE

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