Sunday, July 21, 2013


A week ago if you’d told me I would be sitting front row at a performance of Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston I’m not sure I would have believed you. Except for the fact that as soon as I’d seen Sir Ken on BBC Breakfast announcing that the National Theatre were broadcasting the play to cinemas all around the country (and on my birthday weekend no less), I went straight online to hunt out some tickets.

That’s the thing about predictions, isn’t it? You can either disbelieve them, or sit back and see if fate arranges things for you or you can take charge and make them happen for yourself.

That’s one of the aspects I love most about ‘The Scottish Play’. (Aside from the language and the insights into mental health issues.) Macbeth’s initial attitude to the Weird Sisters in contrast with that of his wife on reading the news and the collisions between fears and doubts and murderous ambition and guilty conscience. It’s compelling stuff.

And when you have a chance to see a live production featuring two such compelling leads (always been a fan of Ken and loved Alex since her days as Dr Elisabeth Corday in ER), well, it’s not to be missed. By all accounts, when tickets went on sale back in February the show’s full run sold out in 9 minutes, so it seems many people agreed on that score. Robbing me of the opportunity to see it on site, but to be fair I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway.

And yes, watching something like this in a cinema is never going to be the same as being there. But you do get a real sense of the liveness of it all and it’s an immersive step further than watching a movie up on a cinema screen. There’s a convincing danger to the opening battle scene that immediately electrifies and that persists throughout. And for a live production it has fewer flaws than many a slick and polished Hollywood multi-gazillion-dollar blockbuster.

Of course, it does have an advantage in the writing department.

In terms of delivery of the material, for a play about ambition there is plenty of ambition in evidence. The setting and staging are superb. We couldn’t smell the mud and (probable) damp of the deconsecrated church in which the drama was played out, but imagination bridged that gap. And the company exploit their prize piece of theatrical real estate to the fullest. The audience, lucky bastards, are right there in the action, lining the pews on either side. They get it all: the rain, the mud and the blood and the occasional murder is carried out right in their faces as the likes of poor Banquo gets thrust up against the front row as he’s cruelly slain. There’s even a (slightly worrying) moment when Macbeth thrusts Lady Macbeth up against the front row as he prepares to take care of her in more amorous fashion.

Thankfully we’re spared that particular graphic detail as they take it off stage and, as they say in popular parlance, ‘get a room’.

Still, it’s illustrative of the energetic interpretation given to most of the roles. Sir Ken has tremendous presence as you’d expect and he humanises Macbeth to an extent I’d not seen before. Alex Kingston is scarily good, especially in her ‘unsexing’ solilioquy and when exhorting her husband to do the bloody deed on Duncan (John Shrapnel). Lady Macbeth’s final disintegration into insanity was, for my money, a bit over the top – over-theatrical, if you like - but it’s a minor hiccup in a superlative experience. If I had to cite other quibbles, I found Alexander Vlahos a bit weak as Malcolm and perhaps Charlie Cameron overcooked the freakishness for the First Witch. Potentially tricky elements were handled really well: such as the floating phantasmal dagger, casting a striking cross of light on the muddy church floor; and the ‘leafy shields’ borne by Malcolm’s advancing army as Burnham Wood did come to Dunsinane. Special mention must go to Ray Fearon who poured his heart and soul into Macduff – no easy thing because he then allows both to be torn apart as he hears news of the slaughter of his wife and children, crafting a moment that turns you cold in the best (and worst, if you see what I mean) way possible. Outstanding and deeply affecting.

It was a highly memorable experience all round, with an intensity that doesn’t let up and doesn’t allow a restful sleep afterwards, even following a 40-minute drive home. (I admit I’m an insomniac in any case, but I tend to know when there are additional forces at work keeping me awake.)

The whole notion of broadcasting live theatre to cinemas wasn’t something I’d encountered before, but it is a brilliant development which I applauded internally even before the play started. Anything that brings such things within my geographical and financial reach is very welcome, thanks.

As birthday treats go, it’s somewhat darker than your average cake, say, (although there were about as many candles as I ought to have on mine) but it’s fuelled my appetite for more.

Luckily, my wife enjoyed it too so I have every confidence she will encourage me in my pursuit of this ambition. But I promise we won’t actually kill for tickets.


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