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

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle