NTL: Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Macbeth’ Is a Powerful Production

Can you imagine the kind of excitement that would sell-out a full season for a single play in less than ten minutes? That’s what happened when tickets for “Macbeth” went on sale in the United Kingdom earlier this year. This wasn’t just any production of the Scottish play. This is the Manchester International Festival’s presentation with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston (“Doctor Who” and “ER”), being broadcast by National Theatre Live.

The actual live broadcast was done in early summer of this year, 2013. What you can see now is the encore broadcasts. Don’t miss it. Rob Ashford and Branagh share directing duties and the setting is hard to match. They also share a few awards. Ashford won an Olivier for “Anna Christie” and a Tony for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Branagh has been nominated for five Oscars and won an Emmy (the 2001 “Conspiracy”).

Manchester is a city in North West England   and is the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom. By car it is about three hours and 30 minutes. The production took a deconsecrated church and made a few adjustments. Instead of pews, the audience is boxed in, partitioned away on both sides of what would have been an aisle. The sides of the box are made with wood and beautifully finished. Much care has been taken with the details.

The aisle was then filled with porous dirt which becomes mud when there’s theatrical rain. Yet the alter is kept separate, mostly bare except for the throne that is under beautiful antique stained glass windows. In another scene, there is a multitude of candles burning.

You can’t help feeling the hand of God or the thought of faith and purity as the action is contrasted between the alter and the muddy pathways. Branagh’s Macbeth starts out as an ordinary sort. He has no fire, no ambition, no spark of resentment toward his king–even after hearing the predictions of the weird sisters. He is only the Thane of Glamis who meets some odd ladies with his fellow general Banquo.

Branagh and Ashford respect the conventions of the time.  The weird sisters aren’t voices within Macbeth or hallucinations. They are real because the people of Shakespeare’s day would have believed them to be real, just as they believed in ghosts and the devil.   These three witches (Charlie Cameron, Anjana Vasan and Laura Elsworthy) are slender, attractive young women, dirty with the mud of common life with shrill, cackling voices.

Yet slowly, we see him become a man driven. There’s a small spark when he is named Thane of Cawdor. Are the predictions his destiny? And does destiny need a little help? When he’s pushed by his wife and his own selfish desires, he becomes a man burning with envy and arrogance.

Ray Fearon has a beautiful sonorous voice and a sturdy build–his MacDuff has the necessary authority to stand against Branagh’s Macbeth. Kingston’s Lady Macbeth isn’t an evil woman. She sees an opportunity and encourages her husband to move forward, but she has not been a warrior and murder is new to her. We are reminded that in these times, betrayal among family and friends was common place. To stay above the dirt and scrambling existence of the commoners, these men and their soldiers must kill other at close range. Safety comes from defeating enemies and making and breaking alliances.

We might not see everything the audience could see, but the directors show us what they want us to see and there are some overhead shots that are meant for the moviegoers. We see and hear the rain. The muck is important. Closeups reveal some wear in the battle clothing of the men.  We see the sweat on the brow of an actor and some actors definitely play to the cameras better than others.

This is a solid, passionate production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that is presented as both a play and a movie and does well in either category. Since so few were lucky enough to snatch up those tickets, take a few hours to catch this production at a location near you. If you can’t see it live, seeing it on the big screen in the next best thing.

Macbeth” is presented by the National Theatre Live and you can visit their website to see where the next encore performance is.


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