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Macbeth, Manchester International Festival

Published by: Caroline May on 18th Jul 2013 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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We’ve been waiting over ten years for Sir Kenneth Branagh to return to Shakespeare, and then when he does it’s for two weeks in a small converted church that barely holds a couple of hundred people.  No wonder tickets sold out 10 minutes after they went on sale.

His much anticipated Macbeth runs swiftly at two hours without an interval, which is as well given the cramped and unforgiving wooden benches the audience is squeezed onto - what with this and the Albert Hall, I think this year’s Manchester International Festival must have been sponsored by a team of physiotherapists who were looking for new patients.

On the plus side, the intimate venue and small-scale audience allow for close-ups of the action that could otherwise only be achieved on film - which is exactly how the production will been seen when it’s screened live this Saturday evening at cinemas across the country.

I’ve no doubt the screen will serve well Branagh’s entirely naturalistic performance as Macbeth, a blokey and likeable soldier whose world is turned upside down by a post-battle encounter with the trio of eerie Weird Sisters.  Clearly in absolute sexual thrall to his voluptuous wife (Alex Kingston), any passing doubts (during the very effectively staged “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech) are speedily overcome, and he proceeds to slaughter his way through the Scottish nobility with ruthless efficiency.  Playing against the rough Celtic setting and extreme situations, Branagh often delivers his lines conversationally and makes the words as fresh, modern and spontaneous as if Shakespeare were an exciting new writer whose script had been specially commissioned for MIF 2013.  (Although he hasn’t shaken my belief that Macbeth should be performed with Scottish accents.)

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Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford have (mercifully) presented the play as written and not tried to psycho-analyse away the supernatural elements.  There are witches, there are ghosts, there are frightening apparitions, and the characters experience genuine horror: this is all facilitated by a world-class technical team.  Neil Austin’s lighting is breathtaking at times, while a number of spectacular illusions by Paul Kieve make you believe you’re at a West End show, not in a found space in Manchester.

Christopher Oram’s design is the most special aspect of the production, working superbly with the austere and atmospheric church setting.  Choir stalls run lengthways along the interior and the action takes place on the mud-caked floor in the centre: you are literally a couple of feet away from the actors.  It sometimes feels like being in a small-scale jousting arena, not least during the battle scenes.

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For all its luxury casting (Ray Fearon as a passionate Macduff, John Shrapnel as a regal Duncan) nothing ever gets close to the visceral thrill of scene 2 when heavy rain suddenly bursts from the roof, and a pitched battle takes place so close that you’re splashed by mud and water and you feel the seating shudder as the actors crash against the stalls.  Terry King’s fighting direction makes this the most convincing, exciting and frightening stage fight I’ve ever known.  And while I’ve got my ticket for NT Live this Saturday, that is one experience which film won’t be able to replicate.

Until Saturday 20 July
Box Office: 0161 236 7110

The run is sold out but day seats are available from 12.30pm - tickets £65

Macbeth is being transmitted live in cinemas round the country on Saturday 20 June @ 8.30pm - for details visit


1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 5 years ago
    This sounds like such an exciting production, Caroline. I'm so jealous of your uncomfortable rain and mud soaked seat! Many thanks.
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