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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How a dramatized account of Mark Duggan's death found a prime-time audience

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario, but Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan was done with surprising care and nuance.

The BBC grows ever more lily-livered in the matter of current affairs. It would, you feel, rather devote an hour to yet another historian in a silly costume than to a piece of investigative journalism – the problem being that while the latter often has serious consequences, the wives of Henry VIII, being dead, cannot be libelled, and thus shows about them are consequence-free.

But what’s this? When I saw it, I had to rub my eyes. Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan, a 90-minute film at 8.30pm on BBC1 (5 December) about the shooting of the 29-year-old Londoner by the police in 2011? Who commissioned this extravaganza of inquiry, and by what strange magic did they secure for it such a whopping great slot in the pre-Christmas schedule? I would love to know. If you have the answers, do please drop me a postcard.

What made it even more amazing was that this documentary contained no hint of a scoop. It was revelatory, but its disclosures were achieved cumulatively, through the careful pulling together of every possible version of the events of that August day: wildly conflicting stories that its director, Jaimie D’Cruz, told through a combination of interviews and reconstructions.

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario; they often come over like The Sweeney gone wrong. But the dramatisations in Lawful Killing had a terrible veracity, being based almost entirely on transcripts of the real thing (inquest accounts, witnesses’ interviews, and so on). Every voice seemed to reveal something, however unwittingly. In these accounts, the attentive viewer heard uncertainty and exaggeration, ambivalence and self-aggrandisement, misunderstanding and back-covering – all those human things that make the so-called truth so elusive and so damnably difficult to pin to the page.

A lot of the supposed intelligence that caused the police to follow Duggan that day remains secret, and I can’t see this changing any time soon. For this reason, I am not qualified, even after seeing the film, to say whether or not he was holding a gun as he emerged from a minicab on that warm afternoon. (The inquest jury decided that Duggan threw a weapon on to a nearby patch of grass before he was – lawfully – shot by an armed officer, while the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which had access to the secret intelligence, decided he was killed while holding one.) However, other things do seem to me to be crystal clear, and chief among them is the strange, cowardly and stupidly inept behaviour of the police immediately after his death.

In those hours, rumours swirled. At Duggan’s mother’s house, the family gathered, expecting a knock on the door at any time. How, they wondered, can a person be dead when the police have not yet informed their closest relatives? But no one came. The next day, the extended clan went to Tottenham Police Station where, again, they waited, for several hours. “Someone will be with you shortly,” they were told. Still, no one came. It was, incidentally, as they finally made their way back home that Duggan’s sister Kay Harrison saw a burning car. It was the first sign of the nationwide riots that – speaking of consequences – ultimately resulted in the deaths of five people.

Meanwhile on Channel 4 is a show for people for whom the Netflix Gilmore Girls reboot isn’t sugary enough (I can’t imagine who they are, these addicts with rotting black stumps for teeth). I was secretly hopeful that This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9pm), which is made by NBC, would be a bit like Thirtysomething, the touchy-feely series about a bunch of baby-boomer friends that I watched obsessively as a sixth former.

But, no. This is the kind of show in which a guy finds his long-lost parent, only to discover that the noble, adorable daddy is – boo hoo – dying of cancer. Its principal characters, three siblings, don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else. Rather, they make speeches, most of which come in two basic formats: mushy and super-mushy. This is schmaltz on toast with a mighty vat of syrup on the side.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump