National Theatre Live: Macbeth

Last night, I had the privilege of seeing Kenneth Branagh star in Macbeth, the production that has brought him back to the Shakespearean stage after a decade. As I’ve mentioned before, this production was very sold out; before going to England this past summer, I tried to pull every Shakespearean string I had, and still no luck! No amount of Googling, even, could find me a scalper to sell me overpriced tickets to this hyped-up production. Lucky for me, the wonderful National Theatre Live screened a live[1] performance of the play. I got to pre-order my tickets without panic, all for the low cost of 23 bucks! Not surprisingly, it was well worth it.

Macbeth telling his wife to "Bring forth men-children only"

Macbeth telling his wife to “Bring forth men-children only”

Branagh has only gotten more attractive with age, and while he held his head high as a redheaded Scot, I respect his decision not to parrot Shakespeare’s words in a put-on Scottish accent. That being said, some of the characters stayed true to their authentic Scottish accents, and I have to say: iambic pentameter has never sounded so sexy!

The reason why I continue to see Shakespeare’s plays re-produced, after reading and seeing them so many times before, is because each production has the potential to open my mind to ideas within the play that I haven’t yet considered. Branagh’s performance was excellent, although I wouldn’t say it shed significant light on aspects of the character that I haven’t already thought about. He pronounced the speeches well, but sometimes a bit too quickly; I would have appreciated a pregnant pause here and there to allow the gravity of Macbeth’s thoughts and actions to set in. For example, when Macbeth ponders his prospective murder of Duncan, he says:

                                  I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

I would have loved it if he had paused at the expression “vaulting ambition”, providing maximum dramatic effect so that we knew that this is his ultimate reason for murdering the king.

Can Macbeth be redeemed for his crimes?

Branagh as a director, though, is another story. The production was exceptionally well directed. It was set in a deconsecrated church, which brought up some really interesting parallels between the cross, symbolizing redemption; swords, symbolizing the battles that bookend the domestic interior plot; and the dagger, that Macbeth uses to kill Duncan. One of the most impressive moments in the production was Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me” soliloquy, when he begins to mentally unravel. This speech provides every director with a choice: do you show the dagger? Is the dagger real, hovering above Macbeth, or is it, as Macbeth says, “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” The impressive moment came when Branagh began this speech, speaking to a beam of light that seemed to reflect from behind the church’s giant cross, onto the muddy battlefield that is stage floor. Never before did the notions of murder and redemption seem so…illuminated. This is the most literal manifestation of my notion of “shedding light” on different meanings within the play. Does Macbeth kill his king and curse himself forever? Or is eternal damnation worth it for the sake of becoming King himself? That being said, after this impressive sight, it seemed almost bathetic[2] when we finally did see a dagger, hovering from above on a not-so-invisible fishing wire.

Duncan in the mud, fighting for his against the initial uprising

Duncan in the mud, fighting against the initial uprising

All in all, the most impressive element of this production was the set. Rather than a stage at the front of the church, the action was set in the nave, the central aisle of the church, with the audience sitting in rows across from each other. The initial battle scene was set in the rain, and much of the killing was done up against the boards, providing a terrifying shock to the audience present in Manchester the night the performance was filmed.

What was really interesting was that they did not cover up this set when the plot turns to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth is a domestic goddess; she plays the role of gracious hostess, all the while convincing her husband to kill the king. I got a new sense of her significant part in this treachery when Alex Kingston waded through the mud, saying: “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements”; this castle is indeed Lady Macbeth’s battlement.

Malcolm fighting in the mud

Malcolm fighting in the mud

If I had to apply one adjective to this production, I’d use the word “raw.” When Macduff cried over the death of his wife and children, he cried from his eyes, nose, and mouth. With the help of filmed close-ups, I was able to see the tears and mucus flowing out of his twisted, grief-stricken face. When Banquo was stabbed (in the back, appropriately), we saw the blood flow out of his mouth. And when any character died in battle, they lay face-down in the mud for minutes on end, no matter how unpleasant it was for the actor himself.

All in all, this is a performance that you don’t want to miss. Luckily, you don’t have to! See your local cinema listings for the encore presentations of National Theatre Live’s presentation of the Manchester International Festival’s Macbeth.


[1] We watched it “as live” – the live performance was filmed over the summer.

[2] The tumbling of the profound into the absurd.

1 Comment

Filed under National Theatre Live, Reviews

One response to “National Theatre Live: Macbeth

  1. Excellent review. I can’t wait to see Branagh as Macbeth.

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