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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Manchester International Festival


  Alexander Vlahos/ Ph: Johan Persson

Apart from his films, boy wonder Kenneth Branagh, now aged 52, has played many of the great Shakespearean lead roles on stage – Henry V, Hamlet, Benedick, Romeo, Coriolanus and, 11 years ago, Richard III. That last remarkable performance was directed by Michael Grandage in Sheffield, Yorkshire, so it seems only right that he balances up a modern day war of the roses by giving his mesmerising Macbeth in Manchester, Lancashire.
This production, co-directed by Branagh and Broadway musicals man Rob Ashford, was an élite event (though broadcast on National Theatre Live in the UK on 20 July) and highlight of the fourth biennial Manchester International Festival, a relatively new cultural bonanza challenging Edinburgh for anointment in media coverage.
Branagh delivered big time. His ad hoc company occupied the deconsecrated Anglican church of St Peter’s in the Ancoats industrial district of the city and created a muddy rectangular pit in the nave, where the battles were conducted with medieval ferocity by thanes and soldiers in kilts and bushy beards, and where witches materialised in a triptych of gothic wooden arches.
This mud-filled, filthy arena – part bullfight corrida, part military stockade, running between an altar of burning candles and an organ loft where the Porter “mans” hell’s gate and Lady Macbeth (a ferocious Alex Kingston, a specialist in sexy Amazons from Moll Flanders to Boadicea) goes sleepwalking in a regular issue white shift – was created by Christopher Oram, Grandage’s regular designer.
Branagh’s other collaborators include familiars from his Shakespeare film series such as composer Patrick Doyle (a spooky, atmospheric
soundtrack), text adviser Russell Jackson and best mate from drama school Jimmy Yuill as a portly, Scottish (and very good) Banquo. As usual, he proves an exemplary company leader, somehow exerting his authority in role and onstage presence by sheer force of talent.
There’s always a mystery about Branagh. How exactly does he do it? He’s not good looking (hair dyed ginger these days); his voice is readily identifiable but no great shakes, his physicality quite ordinary; yet it all comes together in a magical, commanding amalgam.
Although he whispers his soliloquies to the audience on two sides, he never looks us in the eye, never loses the singular potency of a starry but unshowy performance. And he gathers pace as he sinks deeper into the psychopathic swill of no return, until his mind races through the dramatic bravura of lamenting his wife’s death in the “Tomorrow” speech, with a great histrionic yelp on the first “Out” brief candle.
Five minutes later, he’s back-peddling furiously in sword-flashing conflict with Ray Fearon’s magniloquent Macduff, a warrior chieftain on a tide of grief and patriotic righteousness. Oddly, musical theatre favourite Rosalie Craig makes far too little of Lady Macduff, though Alexander Vlahos compensates for the blandness of Malcolm, the anointed successor, with a furious and well-judged boyish petulance.
We see the imaginary dagger dancing in mid-air, and Banquo’s ghost appears twice, upsetting what looks like a ridiculously frugal feast to start with. John Shrapnel, the RSC veteran, is a noble Duncan (murdered on stage) and witnesses his own funeral procession as an old courtier in the loft; and Benny Young, a notable Scottish doctor.
The tremendous fights are the work of the experienced arranger, Terry King, and the three weird women (i.e. witches) a truly alarming and Halloween-y trio of Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan. I’ve never felt so powerfully before their conspiracy of evil – and the stage flares with a bolt of flame – when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost or won. 


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