Scottish play given Northern grit

The way to dusty death: Branagh's Macbeth at bay Pictures MIF and NT Live

Macbeth

Manchester International Festival

St Peter's Church, Ancoats, Manchester

****

SIR Kenneth Branagh’s acceptance of an invitation from this year’s Manchester International Festival (MIF) caused surprise in some quarters. Manchester? Why not London? Why not an established, reputable company? Why not the National Theatre, founded by Ken’s forerunner Laurence Olivier, with whom he has often been compared, and whose inimitable voice he even wonderfully spoofed on film (Marilyn)?

And why perform – and audition it - in a church?

But Olivier was not one to dodge risks: when he launched his legendary Othello at Chichester with Maggie Smith, then filled the ailing Old Vic; paraded Henry V, or parts of it, in a Globe Theatre-like Jacobean auditorium; took on Archie Rice in The Entertainer; or a Nazi mass-murderer (Marathon Man).

The parallels continue: Branagh as Hitler’s aide Heydrich, plotting the Final Solution as urbanely as Olivier would have done; Branagh at Harfleur and Agincourt; pirouetting in the less successful, but daring, Love’s Labour’s Lost; Branagh the entrepreneur, ever the courageous gambler.

There is something of the last in the venue he and his West Virginian co-director, Rob Ashford, have settled on, or accepted, for this new Macbeth. St. Peter’s Church, in the once heavily industrial suburb of Ancoats, on Manchester inner city’s eastern fringe, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, once Manchester’s most populous district, bordering the late 18thC Rochdale Canal and first recorded, coincidentally (‘Elnicot’), around the time Macbeth ruled Scotland, is, or has become, an extraordinary resurrected building.

Reached through a gamut of gaunt two century-old brick tenements and classic back-to-back cotton workers’ housing, presided over by a benign ‘plain’ rose window that achieves a miraculous effect midway (the Lighting, by Neil Austin is wonderful from start to finish), the church offers a curious House of Commons-like layout, where we, the audience, writhe or revel at the gore on either side of a narrow channel, like banner-wavers surveying a medieval joust. And jousts there certainly are: the violent opening affray which Duncan, a not too memorable king scarce six years on the throne, wins thanks to his doughty champions, Banquo (the ultra-stolid, soon dominating Jimmy Yuill) and Macbeth (Branagh), each carving a way with the others through swathes of dark brown mud in a sequence of brilliantly realistic (and dangerous) fights set up by the RSC and National Theatre Fight Director Terry King; the mixed-quality trysts of Macbeth with the Weird (or ‘weyard’) Sisters, and Banquo’s ghost, and with the particularly shuddery elements Duncan’s murder unleashes (a splendid sound design from Christopher Shutt, to a stylishly restrained score from Patrick Doyle, who wrote the music for Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company and film scores for Henry V, Much Ado and Hamlet); and finally facing the untimely ripp’d Macduff (a convincingly grief-ridden, general-like Ray Fearon) once plodding Birnam Wood (quite well enacted here) has done its best to fray and sap confidence.

But Branagh’s real battle is with himself. This is a murderer indeed ‘infirm of purpose’; as unable to deal with the burgeoning consequence of his late actions as he is to perpetrate and shrug off the royal murder. He makes no claim to entitlement (Macbeth was in fact a legitimate claimant of the throne). He shows no ability to forge alliances, except with those who prove political minnows. He has no relations with Siward, thus leaving the English alliance open to the particularly memorable Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos, a heartthrob Mordred in BBC TV’s Merlin), who turns the escapee princeling into something at least as politically astute as Henry Tudor in Richard III (Branagh’s last UK stage foray into Shakespeare was famously also not in London, but at the Sheffield Crucible).

Three (very) weird sisters - Anjana Vasan, Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy

As Malcolm Canmore, this heir would soon bite the hand that fed him, launching campaigns against England in an attempt to wrest Northumbria – part of the dead Siward’s suzerainty – from Edward the Confessor: and with Vlahos’s confident striding and subtle political camouflage, you can believe it.

This Macbeth does not slither into a decline: he is never at peace with himself – loopy, in fact - from the outset. In the opening scenes Branagh is almost a fey presence, very much an also-ran to Yuill’s thrusting, and strangely alert, Banquo. You can see he has reason to fear a man who is at least his equal. The two stride around in criss-crossed brown-terracotta plaid, constantly hitched up in Branagh’s case, with only a hint of colour: a grey realm, given to dark things, such as witches (the three here certainly ghoulish and intermittently effective, but hyperactive at the expense of the words), or falcons killed by mousing owls - in a superb scene between reliable Ross (Norman Bowman, whose well-rehearsed speaking with Steven Cree’s unusually battle-hardened Lennox early on helped get the show motoring) and the Old Man (John Shrapnel).

Shrapnel, still one of the finest verse speakers on the English stage today, Shrapnel - with stage credits as long as your arm (an RSC Claudius is one), has a bigger old man role. Two in fact; once as a long-suffering, ancient Seyton, not really apt for the tyrant’s henchman (who surely ought to be played with a hunchback; I remember Edward Hardwicke as a particularly villainous incarnation); more importantly, as the hapless but poetic Duncan (‘There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face…’).

The real Duncan, elected king, was not so much a hallowed old codger in 1040 A.D. as a 39 year old still in his prime, some four years older than his cousin and rival; and relevantly he, like Macbeth, claimed descent from Malcolm II through not the paternal line but their mothers, and actually died unwisely attacking Moray, his commander, Macbeth’s own fiefdom.

Shrapnel supplies everything the malicious Shakespeare, eager in 1606-7 (when it was written; it was staged before James I later, in 1611) to court ‘legitimate’ Scottish royalty, wants of Duncan: crisp-spoken, clean-living nobility; a mutually backscratching respect for the Scottish aristocracy (one of the many lines Macbeth crosses); purity; and pathos. We actually see this honest Duncan die, significantly, in the candlelit chancel that hallows the halls Branagh is in process of polluting. Religion, like everything else, haunts this Macbeth. Even as he moves on to the next bumping-off, unlike for Richard Plantagenet, his conscience is a killer.

It is as if he, not she, should do the sleep walking scene (an intermittently powerful Macbeth Frau from Alex Kingston, who once charmed the Midlands as Birmingham Rep's Desdemona opposite Jeffrey Kissoon; one of her best cynical lines was ‘When in swinish sleep Their drenched natures lie, as in a death’; and best of all, ‘If we should fail, -’ ‘We fail’). Their scene together after the killing was an absolute high point.

There are other good performances, and even vignettes. One of the best, apart from Vlahos’s Malcolm, a shrewd match for Fearon’s Macduff, is Daniel Ings’s cocky – and inventive - Porter: great fun, terrifically enacted across an organ lift-like platform at one end, out of which the Witches have their brilliant and terrifying first entry, where Banquo’s ghost latterly skulks, and through whose slats Austin achieves astonishing, rapier-like lighting effects. Ings’s imagined equivocators, English tailors and co. are all wonderfully conjured, heads and arms and other limbs spasmodically drooping over: a bit like a better parody of the Witches’ disappointingly prop-free manoeuvrings.

The succubi that are best managed are those of Banquo’s, or Fleance’s offspring (Patrick Neil Doyle, a charmingly musical, strumming young laird): emerging from a kind of disgusting uterus of infernal muck and mud, and parading down the galley gangway with the moral sneer of Crookback’s censuring Bosworth apparitions.

If Fearon’s Macduff (he is certainly a force: the RSC's Othello, Pericles, Romeo and Mark Anthony) brings purging sanity, not so much his ‘Horror, horror…’, but his outburst at the news from Fife, is astonishing: a visceral outpouring like a West African wake.

 Merlin all over again - Alexander Vlahos's magnificent Malcolm battles Branagh's Macbeth

That scene itself is one of the best defined in the play: Rosalie Craig’s Lady Macduff, exquisite in conversation with her sophisticated little son (shades of Arthur and Hubert, perhaps), and uttering to her killers that crucial word ‘unsanctified’, a Leitmotif of this Branagh production, which itself begins with Vespers bell and plainsong.

Interesting that Macbeth dooms ‘all unfortunate souls that trace him (i.e. the Thane of Fife) - in his line’. He is obsessed with linear descent - note his anguish at Banquo: ‘Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown, And but a barren sceptre in my gripe, Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand’, No son of mine succeeding: ‘fruitless . . . barren . . . unlineal . . . son . . . issue . . . seed’. He doesn’t even (so far as we know) have a son, unless one is still-born with the Queen’s shrieks. Yet direct descent (from the all-powerful Malcolm II, 1005-34, and in Lady M’s case from Kenneth III) is really his unmentioned defence. One of the best conceits I have seen in any Macbeth was Phyllida Lloyd’s, in the Covent Garden Verdi opera staging, where an entire idyll, with the Macbeth couple transfiguringly surrounded by the playfully gambolling children they might have had, is played out, all in white. Incredibly moving.

A treat of the nightmare Fife scene is the speaking, and the performing of the surprisingly seasoned boy actor Harry Polden (quite a find as the boy in ENO’s recent Wozzeck, and sharing the role with Pip Pearce): ‘Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men, and hang them up.’ Delicious; and Master Macduff is as delicious in demise as in life (long, gurgling, gut-wrenching ends being an Ashford-Branagh speciality).

Siward (David Annen) has track record as well as potential, but deserved to be a doubled role. His heir Osbjorn (Young Siward: Harry Lister Smith; historically it was his nephew who was called Siward), earlier one of the victims of Ings’s bizarre doorman, looks too pretty to have a close-quarters chance: and duly gives Branagh, whose double blade and broadsword swordsmanship under Terry King’s direction is unnervingly impressive, scope to remind us of his not yet waned prowess (his foe Siward père, survived but a year after this Scottish escapade).

The fact that Malcolm has been dubbed by Duncan, Duke of Cumberland recalls two things: that England’s North Western tip was once Scottish; and that the expansive Siward, who ruled from Yorkshire to Northumberland and from about now Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire too, was an (at that point) friendly neighbour. Intervening to save thrones was part of his agenda: he was crucial in not just unseating Macbeth, but outmanoeuvring Edward the Confessor’s Wessex rival.  Godwin.

The Doctor (Benny Young, very Scottish delivery) was as impressive as the good Lady, whose lines I found less troubling than usual in the sleepwalking scene; and Katie West, whose more daring early credits include Jo (A Taste of Honey) for the Sheffield Crucible, was a delectable snooded acolyte, pottering up and down on Queenly errands. The Murderers, too (three, to match the Witches: Stuart Neal, Jordan Dean, and the ineluctable Ings), deserve mention: not especially defined, but thoroughly up to it.

 John Shrapnel as Duncan in a war-ravaged Scotland

But it is Branagh’s speaking that seals him as an outstanding Macbeth: if, that is, treating some of Shakespeare’s best lines as bits of garrulity to be pattered off almost unnoticed is not a sin (‘Will plead like angels trumpet-tongu’d’,  . . .  ‘And wither’d murder, Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf, . . . Moves like a ghost’; ‘Hear it not Duncan . . .’).

He does the weak man incredibly well. ‘We will speak further’ is classic procrastination; He is very much prepared to live a coward in his own esteem. These ‘terrible dreams That shake us nightly’ are as real as ‘scorpions’ that afflict his mind. With ‘I dare do all that may become a man’ he clings to a humanity that she, and ambition, are python-like squeezing out of him.

But where Branagh triumphs here time and again is by finding lines we almost never hear, individual words that normally weep unnoticed, and polishing them to lend them fresh import. ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’ he fills with import. He can take ‘The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums’ or one of those troublingly attenuated couplets, ‘The crow Makes wing to the rooky wood; Good things of day begin to droop and drowse’, and turn them in to quotes you would put on a par with daggers, heaven’s cherubim and all.

‘The time has been my senses would have cool’d To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir As life were in it’ was one lesser-known cluster that came out clear as a bell, the quavering voice whistling from one emotion to another. ‘For it hath cow’d my better part of man: And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d, That palter with us in a double sense;’ was another: the poor tyrant may have lost his wits, but never his verse speaking.  

Branagh doesn’t change clothes throughout the play; nor, mostly, did any of the others (Duncan may have been an exception). It must have been a smelly Pictish place, 11th century Scotland. Perhaps such luxuries were reserved for the Church. We don’t see a prebend during this show (the Doctor, attending Banquo’s banquet in skullcap attire, is a kind of makeshift). Nor do we perhaps know how far the church, like Russian Orthodoxy, played along and gave its blessing to its new rulers, Macbeth or Malcolm. Macbeth, like other well-born youths, was educated at a Christian monastery; like his Norse cousin or nephew from Orkney, did, in fact, make a largesse-filled pilgrimage to Rome. That’s an idea some future production might pick up.

But a revival of that opening plainsong (to mourn the Queen’s death, and gutter out at ‘Out, out, brief candle . . .’ - one of Branagh’s supreme moments in the whole play) might have helped underline the paradox - of eternal good and temporal bad - that this so often shiveringly good and surprising production seeks openly and subliminally to address.

There was no revelation at the end, no Seyton restored or triumphing as Duncan’s ghost, just one more corpse - and Macbeth’s head in a sack here, no match for Greek Tragedy, seemed a bit naff. But then it’s the moment we dread, when all the fun and all the entertainment is silenced. Unflinching homicide he may be, but as Sir Ken adroitly and searingly and mischievously reminds us, MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaig, Mormaer of Moray, the ‘Red King’, High King of Scotland, is always endless fun. No wonder, as pi Malcolm leads Scotland into the English sway (a situation his flighty brother Donalbain, Elliot Balchin, would later redress) we miss him so badly at the close. To 21-07-13

Roderic Dunnett 

The production is being screened live by NT Live to 250 cinemas nationwide on July 20. To find a cinema near you and to book  - www.NTlive.com.

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