Is this a dagger?

On Saturday, I went to see Macbeth, shown at cinemas as part of National Theatre Live and the Manchester International Festival. It’s been a while since I indulged in writing theatre criticism (in fact, not since I was a drama student at sixth-form), so here are some thoughts.

I really enjoyed watching the play broadcast in a cinema. There was a sense of grandeur about the big screen, and the camera-work was smooth and clever, combining close shots of important moments with broader views of the stage when it was action-filled. Of course, it could never replicate the atmosphere inside the theatre itself, but as the play was in Manchester and tickets sold out in nine minutes, back in February, it was a very good second best. The National Theatre have a great programme of upcoming plays to be filmed: go and check them out!

I felt this production was a consumate and compelling performance of the ‘classic’ interpretation of Macbeth, by which I mean the one most modern Shakespeare fans would recognise, not what old Will dreamt up himself. There were medieval Scottish costumes with tartan and swords in abundance, with even a smattering of Scottish accents. The staging was simply amazing: in St Peter’s, a restored, deconsecrated Victorian church, the apse filled with candles, the other end of the nave a wooden fortress, parapet, door all in one, and between them (and between the audience) filled with thick black mud. In the opening battle scene, rain poured down onto the fighters. This particular Scotland is a grim, bleak place.

Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston were great in the title roles, a loving couple descending, colourfully and fascinatingly, into madness. Macbeth probably gets some of the Bard’s best lines, and Branagh made the most of them, but it was the relationship between the two which really captivated. In a short interview shown before the play, co-director Rob Ashford commented on how Branagh and Kingston had captured the bond between the two Macbeths: ‘everything they do, they do for each other’. This made the increasing isolation even more poignant. An extra tension was added by the implication, now seemingly conventional, that they had lost children, drawn from the contrast between Lady M’s ‘I have given suck’ (I:VII, l. 54) , which Kingston delivered in tears, and Macduff’s later line ‘he has no children’ (IV:III, l. 215). Here I might flippantly suggest that Shakespeare, or his later compilers and publishers, were simply inconsistent, but that’s not the point: I don’t believe that directors are obliged to tell the story exactly as the writer intended – but that’s another debate.

I think the witches are the hardest part of the play to pitch to the modern audience. They were written to be horrifyingly scary, but nowadays witches just seem a bit silly. The weird sisters in this production – Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan – managed to be quite weird, in a shouty, jerky kind of way, and although they weren’t especially scary they did give the sense of always being there in the background. Their best scene was, predictably, the famous Act 4 Scene 1. I was surprised and pleased that the witches’ long spell-cum-recipe was cut: surprised because everyone I know studied it repeatedly at school and that makes it feel fairly canonical, pleased because it plays more to silly than scary images of witches. They still shouted ‘double, double, toil and trouble’, so that’s alright, and the ensemble portrayal of devils in a cauldron – or, in this case, a pentagle – was very good, though it reminded me just a little of parachute games at school sports days.

If the witches are the hardest to pitch, I think Macduff is the most difficult individually to play. He has three big speaking scenes, and in the first two really just expresses inexpressible grief (you try saying ‘horror, horror, horror’ without it sounding trite). Ray Fearon got it perfect. He confronted the deaths of Macduff’s family with incomprehension, and then howls which shook the church – and when he swung a sword you knew he was the meanest warrior north of Hadrian’s Wall.

The more unconventional moments came in smaller pieces, like the cross of light on the floor which Macbeth gazed at before asking ‘is this a dagger…’ (this was followed by actual floating – well, hanging – daggers that I didn’t like half so much). John Shrapnel’s Duncan was not, interestingly, a saintly sovereign but a more believable earthy figure, more a warlord, with occasional hints that he might be a little unsavoury himself. I didn’t think the slapstick porter’s speech in Act 2 Scene 3 was as good, but I don’t find that speech very funny anyway. It’s the equivalent of Shakespeare nudging you in the ribs, saying ‘oo er’ and reciting some dirty words.

Watching this production, it made me think of some of the dimensions you could push further if you wanted to. One is the threat of violence, rather than violence itself; there will always be plenty of blood in any performance of this play. When I was taught Macbeth at school, great emphasis was placed on the king and the land. Unnatural king, unnatural happenings, like horses eating each other (II.IV, l. 16-21) . More resonant nowadays, though, is the unsettling of society and the breakdown of law and order. It is only visible in the scenes where Banquo and Lady Macduff are murdered (though in this production, these were suitably dark), but there are lines like ‘[Scotland] weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds’ (IV.III, l. 40-41) that suggest indiscriminate violence, or even worse, some kind of secret police. Looked at this way, Macbeth becomes a besieged dictator. His line towards the finale, ‘hang those that talk of fear’ (V:III, l. 37) would take on a chilling sincerity.

Another area of potential is the previous relationship between Macbeth and Duncan. This is a tricky one. I had forgotten how quickly Macbeth moves from boon companion to plotting traitor – so quickly that you have to wonder if they really were all that boon. By the first scene where they are both together, Macbeth is already contemplating doing Duncan in. How well did they get on before the witches intervened? Without actually inventing lines, this would probably be easier to do with film or multimedia. If you went with a modern setting – like Ralph Fiennes’ Corialanus (2011) or the RSC’s brilliant Julius Caesar, televised last year – you could mock-up some opening footage showing Duncan and Macbeth together. Perhaps the opening battle becomes a popular uprising against a former dictator, Duncan an opposition leader, and Macbeth’s actions a military coup…

So it’s hard to say whether my extremely vague ideas come more from this production or from recent events. I certainly don’t want to suggest that a modern setting would automatically be better. How you interpret a play depends on what you want to give your audience. This production of Macbeth was enormously entertaining, a times savage, at times solemn, and it also made me think harder about where you might go with the text. I don’t know if that’s what the performers were after, but I hope they’ll be satisfied with it.

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