What’s done cannot be undone: Macbeth fails to deliver

John Shrapnel as Duncan
John Shrapnel as Duncan

Since 2009, National Theatre Live has been transmitting live performances to cinemas around the world, bringing the theatrical into the more accessible realm of the cinematic. Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth looked as if it were made for the big screen, the opening battle sequences and the grittiness of the production as a whole embraced in raw detail by camera close-ups. Indeed, Christopher Oram’s set is a masterpiece of design that brings the damp, peat-coloured soil of the battlefield into the confines of a deconsecrated church in Manchester. The entire play is in the spirit of Braveheart, its mud-stained clothing and earthy Scottish soundtrack resisting the Technicolor triteness of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

The play begins with the sound of plainsong reverberating around the walls, setting us up for a thoroughly medieval Macbeth. Chris Shutt’s sound design was a cinematic medley of deafening drums and lingering pipe notes, which infused the atmosphere with a Scottish authenticity. The danger with such an atmospheric soundtrack was that often much of the dramatic force and tension in a scene came from the music – and not the acting. In particular, when Branagh’s Macbeth saw Banquo’s ghost and cowered on the dining table, the tense notes turned the scene into a horror movie cliché and drowned out what dramatic force came from Branagh’s speech.

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Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

However, such music worked thrillingly with the set pieces of action choreographed by Terry King. The opening and closing battles of Macbeth were brilliantly orchestrated, especially the tense advance of Birnam Wood down the aisle of the church. The transverse structure of the stage enabled the actors to weave in and out of various entrances, creating a vivid sense of a labyrinthine castle being invaded. All cast members made confident starts, particularly John Shrapnel as Duncan, whose gruffness was counterpointed by the tears shed when he holds Macbeth ‘to my heart’. His sense of affection and loyalty was mirrored by MacDuff’s (Ray Fearon’s) furious grief at finding his king dead. Fearon’s was a standout performance; the fierce determination of a soldier skilfully blended with the sorrow of a childless father and wifeless husband.

Less convincing and even less engaging were Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston as Macbeth and his Lady: a pair who promised so much, yet failed to deliver the dramatic punch that the couple should carry in the play. On paper, their acting was impressive, with a command of Shakespeare’s verse that would make any drama teacher go weak at the knees. There were some intriguing moments, such as when Branagh curled up on his throne with his cloak like a safety blanket, suggesting Macbeth’s strong sense of insecurity. Such moments, however (whatever they appeared to suggest about the character), disappeared into the general milieu of two-dimensional performances that lacked imagination.

Their strength was as a pair, in scenes and moments when the Macbeths’ sense of marital tenderness and domesticity imbued the more generic ambition and madness that drove their performances. Rob Ashford suggested in the pre-show interview with Emma Freud that they lead as a couple, and such a directorial decision was admirable. Unfortunately it left their performances hanging in their more famous individual scenes, where Kingston and Branagh regressed to more two-dimensional, dare I say A-Level, interpretations.

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Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth

Because all their dramatic imagination was as a pair, it was difficult to see why Branagh’s Macbeth spoke of ‘my black and deep desires’ and was driven to murder (other than because the text demanded it). His thespian vigour powered through Shakespeare’s verse to the extent that famous speeches and turning points in Macbeth’s character had little gravity and significance. This meant there was little space for the audience to register Macbeth’s rapid decline. Kingston’s performance also lacked nuance, rendering her arm-flailing sleepwalking scene an oddly histrionic moment in an otherwise coasting characterisation. Kingston and Branagh gave us psychological intrigue rather than characters the audience could care about, let alone sympathise with, made worse by the cinematic score which drained all the dramatic force in some scenes to a few tense notes, in a regrettably horror movie-style manner.

I desperately wanted to love this production, and it was certainly impressive and competently acted, but it delivered so little of what it promised. There were tantalisingly hopeful moments, such as the glittering suspicion in Branagh’s eyes, but they were swept up in the quick pace of a production that allowed little breathing room for a tragic arch to be established. The production’s skill lay in its ability to create interesting individual moments and great set pieces, but the combination of the two didn’t add up to reveal that anything about the play other than its violent, gritty medieval quality. It was much more skilful presentation than gripping interpretation of Shakespeare.


National Theatre Live currently broadcast Manchester International Festival’s performance of Macbeth at various venues throughout the UK: more details are available on their website http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout4-macbeth

PHOTOS/ Johan Persson