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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era