Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, National Theatre Live: review

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Giorgia Meschini

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of Macbeth – the centrepiece of the theatrical branch of this year’s Manchester International Music Festival – is fast-paced and gripping and reminds you that this play isn’t about regal negotiations and royal courts but bloody battles and dark deeds. Forget The Killing, Shakespeare was writing the thrillers of his day and Macbeth has twists, suspense and gore enough to satisfy any crime fan.

The setting is simply brilliant – the deconsecrated St Peter’s church (which has just been taken over by the Hallé Orchestras as its rehearsal space)  had atmosphere in bucket loads and from the opening scene – the three sisters writhing in niches in the wall in the manner, as one reviewer noted, of diabolical inversions of statues of saints – through the rain-drenched opening battle (never usually staged) and to the final chilling showdown, the church became almost an extra character in the play.

This is a world, we are made to realise, which springs from the mud-soaked earth and which is encircled by belief in higher powers.  But enough has been said elsewhere about the production itself – Michael Billington has compared Branagh’s performance to that of Olivier, Christopher Oram’s set has been praised by Susannah Clapp and Dominic Cavendish admired Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth.

But unlike the critics, I was watching the show in a cinema in Chesterfield (Cineworld, if you’re wondering). I was a theatre-broadcast virgin – although I’m a regular at opera performances in the cinema – and this new medium, to my mind, threw up a number of problems.

One of the things I most value about going to the theatre is letting my eyes roam around the set – I’ll look at characters who aren’t speaking, I’ll admire the detail of the set, I’ll even peep round at my fellow audience members to look at their expressions. Although your attention is directed by lighting, staging and dialogue, you can choose to rebel.

In the cinema, you’re blinkered. Your gaze is directed by the camera crew. From reading the reviews, for example, I know that Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth spent the opening battle scene lighting candles at the altar end of the church, and that these candles were gradually extinguished during the rest of the evening. But I missed all of that, because the camera instead dwelt on the battle scene in the opening and only treated the candles as background for the rest of the play.

The second, obvious problem, is that actors project. How else would the punters in row Y hear what was being said? On the big screen, where we’re used to actors whispering and mumbling their lines, the stage volume comes across as simply too loud – something the rest of the group I went with all complained about on leaving the play.

But the thing I missed most of all was the immediacy. Yes, we were watching a live broadcast, but I couldn’t smell the sweat. I could see the spit as Macduff burst his lungs mourning his wife and children, but there was no chance of being sprayed by it. We could watch the sword fight but we didn’t have to duck to avoid the blows. And in a brilliant coup de théâtre, the witches conjured their master with a burst of flame – and in our air-conditioned cushioned cinema in Derbyshire we saw the cramped, uncomfortable audience in that Manchester church leap back in their seats from the sudden appearance of a line of fire.

What I wouldn’t have given to have been in the narrow, sweltering, uncomfortable church pews of St Peter’s. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved watching it on the screen, but this, for me, will never beat the visceral experience of sitting in the stalls. As Macbeth might have put it: ‘to see a play thus is nothing…’

For more information about NT Live visit the National Theatre’s website

  1. Gosh this sounds good; wish I’d seen this performance! Mum xxx

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