Mucking About with Sir Kenneth Branagh: “Macbeth” on NTLive


Sir Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Sir Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Sir Kenneth goes mucking about, and offers nothing new or exciting for his pains. The National Theatre Live screenings present William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, co-directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford for the Manchester International Festival, produced in a deconsecrated Victorian church. In his cozy pre-show chat with NT Live’s host, Ashford reveals that not only is this production performed in a church, they held auditions for it in one and rehearsed in another, a curious fetish.  The performance takes place in the church’s apse and nave. The audience sits in dark, stadium-style boxes on either side of the nave. The apse looms bright with a wealth of luminescent candles arrayed in a semi-circle, bathed in warm hues, buttery yellow, orange and red. Ankle deep, dark peaty muck that exudes a stench covers the entire nave floor, where most action takes place, under cooler light and often in shadow. It’s a “concept production.”

With a “concept production”, directors risk distancing from the text’s meaning, stretching it past logic in order to follow the concept’s dictates. Perhaps this production makes more sense if seen in person? It feels strained and problematic as viewed on film, comes across as self-consciously camp/ spooky instead of allowing the potent, unworldly drama in text and character to drive the mayhem with tragic consequences. The floor muck presents an issue of major consequence. A theatrical rule of thumb dictates that actors should never bring a prop onstage if they don’t use it; the audience will forget the play and wonder why the prop exists. As nasty and squelchy as the nave’s muck must be underfoot in this “Macbeth”, no actor in the ensemble notices it, recoils from its feel or stink, or uses it to make any point, in the entire performance. Even when they run on stage barefoot and ankle-length nightshirt-clad to learn about the fuss caused by King Duncan’s murder, nobody steps in the muck with distaste, nobody hikes up a hem, nobody wrinkles their nose or tries to wipe it off. So why have it? I found myself distracted, watching to see if anybody  would react to the nasty brew. I suppose it’s there to indicate the wet, filthy, smelly environment of the play’s Scottish setting. As a sustained metaphor for the outdoors on Scotland’s moors in every scene, it would find better use in a play about Scottish mud wrestling.

There are fine acting performances in this production, most from secondary characters. Ray Fearon as Macduff, Jimmy Yuill as Banquo and Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm all bring welcome intensity and veracity to the odd church staging. I don’t know quite what to make of Branagh as the title character. I have enjoyed much of his previous screen work. Reliable reviews of the live production certainly praise him, for the most part.

Sir Kenneth Branagh

Sir Kenneth Branagh

Perhaps he was “off’ the night filmed? I found his performance under par. He seems tired and slow, not engaged with the other actors, little eye contact. His interest in Lady Macbeth seems perfunctory at best; and he feels barely able to keep up in the combat scenes, hardly leading the fray. Alex Kingston seems ill cast as Lady Macbeth. Most ensemble performances lean towards naturalism, so Kingston’s over the top melodrama and amateurish characterization belong elsewhere. It’s as if she is preparing herself for the role of Madame Thénardier, villain in “Les Miserables”. Worst of all are the three witches. Kate Bassett of The Independent described them thus in her July 2013 stage review: “a ghoul-girl trinity, a travesty of saints in arched niches – faces blackened, eyeballs rolling, jittering like deranged monkeys.” I could not agree more.

Sir Kenneth: please stop mucking around and give us the honest, simple performances Hamlet urged on his Players.

Photographs of Branagh as Macbeth:  Johan Persson

Stage review from The Independent, 7/2013:–kenneth-branaghs-spot-of-bother-at-the-manchester-international-festival-8692542.html

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