It’s been more than a decade since Kenneth Branagh appeared in a Shakespearean role, and the entire run of Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival sold out in nine minutes. This is probably the theatrical event of the year, but one I expected to miss out on. Again, the National Theatre has come to my rescue with its season of live cinema screenings. Although I wasn’t prepared to go to Manchester, I did have to go to East Finchley. The Phoenix Cinema has a very nice art deco auditorium with seats that you can just about manage for 2 1/2 hours and by the time the NT Live preamble began, excitement and expectation were running high.
This play is all about evil. Set in a disused church, the atmosphere is dark, menacing and violent. It begins on a rainy battlefield with real mud, which as the play progresses begins to stain everything, representing Macbeth’s guilt. Actions normally occurring off-stage such as the opening battle and Duncan’s murder are shown, giving insights into his character – he is the protagonist but not the hero. Unlike Hamlet or Othello who are wronged by others, Macbeth cold-bloodedly murders his King and steals a throne he has no legitimate claim to because of the witches’ premonition. Unlike Hamlet, he doesn’t agonise about the legitimacy of what he’s told, but unquestioningly accepts it as his destiny. As we cleverly see here, Macbeth looks into the trusting face of his friend and still murders him, a chilling moment and somehow a crucial insight into the man who becomes a tyrant. Branagh portrays this metamorphosis from loyal subject, to murderer and usurper brilliantly. You can see how clearly he understands the character, not looking to evoke sympathy from the audience but revealing in unsettling detail the conflict between his guilt and the depths of his ambition. His own demise, curiously, happens off stage, but doesn’t detract from a very special performance from Branagh.
Around him is more of a mixed bag. The setting works really well and helps to reinforce Macbeth’s irreligious actions, and most of the cast performances are excellent – John Shrapnel as Duncan, Jimmy Yuill as Banquo and particularly Ray Fearon as McDuff whose devastation at the murder of his family is heartbreaking. Not quite sure what happened with the witches and Lady Macbeth however. The witches are shrill and practically inaudible – it’s a wonder Macbeth heard their predictions because I certainly didn’t catch most of it! I’m not a fan of Alex Kingston and this performance did nothing to persuade me; she began slightly hysterical and lacked any convincing sense of the cunning or ambition necessary to support her husband in his crimes. As for the hand wringing scene, it was almost embarrassing to watch, full of strange mechanical movements – a bizarre decision.
Undoubtedly though, this is Branagh’s play and it will be remembered as a significant interpretation. Thanks to NT Live you can now see this and a number of other great productions at the cinema, without the high West End seat prices! The screening in East Finchley was a sell-out at 1.30pm on a Monday afternoon, with an average audience age of 70. Lots of people will want to see these so please NT, let’s have more cinemas and evening / weekend showings so we don’t have to take an afternoon off! Although, for this Macbeth, it was worth it!
For more information on NT Live forthcoming screenings including Macbeth, The Audience, Othello, Frankenstein and Coriolanus, visit their website.