Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth: A masterful portrayal of a murderer

The Kenneth Branagh/Rob Ashford production of <em>Macbeth</em> for the Manchester International Festival presents an enthralling portrait of sickening, desire-fuelled ambition.

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth in the Manchester production
Photograph: Johan Persson

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In February I went to see James McAvoy, better known as a film actor and for his star turn in The Last King of Scotland, in the role of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall, London. The setting was the near future, in an independent Scotland ravaged by war and technology failures and “too afraid to know itself” (the oil must have run out). McAvoy, who is 34, was a callow Macbeth, manic-eyed and energetically mobile – skidding across the stage on his knees, clambering up ladders, always hurrying, never at rest. His relationship with the even younger Claire Foy (as Lady Macbeth) was hesitant and even respectful. They did not seem like a couple enraptured by diabolical ambition and driven by sexual desire.

By contrast, when Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth encounters his wife for the first time on his return from battle, he pulls her aggressively towards him and kisses her with vigorous intensity. Even as she tries to press upon him the urgent need to murder Duncan, King of Scotland (John Shrapnel), so that he may have the chance to become king, Macbeth turns his wife round, roughly pushes her up against a wall, rubs his crotch against her and then begins to thrust. They conspire breathlessly and can scarcely keep their clothes on. They even slightly resemble each other, both being pale-skinned and red-haired. And the stench of sex and death hangs in the air.

Rob Ashford and Branagh’s Macbeth, which ends its two-week run on Saturday 20 July, has been one of the outstanding attractions of this summer’s fourth Manchester International Festival. It is staged not in a theatre but in a deconsecrated Victorian church, St Peter’s, in the Murrays’ Mills district, a 15-minute walk from the city centre. The audience, just 260 people, sits on hard wooden pews either side of a long, narrow corridor, a bit like a racing paddock, where most of the action unfolds.

At one end is a raised altar on which many candles burn, and it is there that Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston, excellent in a difficult role) stands from the beginning, her head covered and her back to the audience, until it is time for her to speak and bring news of the letter from her husband written after his encounter with the three weird sisters. At the other end is a wall, from which windows open, and from the top of which characters declaim, as if from castle battlements on high. Through these windows, or openings, the weird sisters first address Macbeth.

Branagh’s Macbeth is the third performance of the great tragedy I have seen since 2011 and certainly the most intense – it lasts two absorbing hours, without interval. In each production, the weird sisters were reimagined with special care. In the RSC’s Macbeth, at Stratford in 2011, the three were cast as blonde children, supernatural beings who had the faces of angels but wicked hearts. In the director Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios, the sisters wore gas marks and appeared to be reading from iPads as they taunted Macbeth, who was as much their victim as he was the agent of his own destruction.

In Manchester, the sisters, all of them small and slightly built like children, are never far from view, appearing before the audience as Duncan is murdered, then as Banquo is murdered, again as Macbeth first believes he sees the ghost of Banquo at the feast, and then when, in a moment of calculated calm, he orders the murder of Lady Macduff and her children.

In the Manchester version, the sisters have blackened faces and thin, straw-like hair. They writhe in the damp mud, celebrating what they have willed or spun in a kind of sickening, masturbatory ritual.

No familiarity with the text prepares you for the extended opening scene: a ferocious battle in which many of the 25-strong company participate. In the text, the battle in which Macbeth distinguishes himself takes place offstage. But the co-directors, Branagh and Ashford, choose to show what is usually only told – not just the battle but also the murder of Duncan, after which Macbeth never knows peace again.

Just before his murder, Duncan wakes to find Macbeth crouching before him. The king seems reassured and fondly strokes the face of the man he has that day honoured. Then the dagger is thrust into him.

During the prolonged opening battle scene, rain pours from above and the mud beneath the soldiers’ feet congeals. It’s a warm evening outside yet inside it’s a Scottish winter. The players wear heavy period clothes, dressed for battle and for weather most foul. The audience sits very close to the action and those in the front row visibly recoil as the slain fall or are slammed up against the wooden pews, their swords mudspattered and blood-soaked.

It’s fascinating to watch an actor such as Branagh, so familiar from film and television, in close proximity. At the age of 52, he is still handsome, soft-lit by the aura of celebrity and hardened by fame. His hair is cropped short and his heavy stubble is gingery-grey. When he soliloquises a spotlight falls on his pale face and he looks tired, the perspiration gathering on his forehead.

There’s nothing self-conscious about his performance. He inhabits the role completely. In this, his first live Shakespeare run in more than a decade, he speaks clearly and naturalistically, as if some of the most celebrated poetry in English literature were fresh to him; as if he were speaking of his torment and regret for the very first time, as the character is, of course, if never the actor. And that’s the trick of it: to live in and through these never-returning moments of the play, to submit to the inexorable force of events.

Before seeing this production, I’d forgotten – or perhaps had never really noticed – that Macbeth disappears for a large part of the second half of the play, during which Macduff’s family is murdered and Macduff himself flees to England to join Duncan’s sons as they prepare to invade Scotland. Lloyd’s production attempted to solve the problem of Macbeth’s long absence from the stage by having McAvoy carry out the murder of Lady Macduff and her son in a gruesome scene, but it was one that, even in a play in which there’s so much killing, still felt somehow gratuitous.

When Branagh finally returns to the stage, you realise how much you’ve missed him. This Macbeth is ruminative and distracted, his mind “dis-eased”, as Branagh pronounces it: in killing Duncan, he succeeds only in killing himself, but until his death he cannot live as he would have wished or ever be at ease again. Branagh’s voice breaks as he speaks the final soliloquy of shattered self-recognition. He is half-weeping, half-sickened, utterly contemptuous. His end cannot come soon enough.

The final performance of “Macbeth” will be relayed to a screen in the Bridgewater Hall car park in Manchester and to cinemas nationwide on 20 July. More details at: mif.co.uk/event/macbeth-relay

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain