Life, according to Macbeth, is “full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing”. Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production is full of balls-to-the-wall aggression and bombast, but ultimately falls short of the significance achieved by Olivier, McKellen or Sher.
I experienced the sound and the fury of Macbeth in the slightly incongruous setting of my local Cineworld. The nationwide broadcast of the closing night from a decrepit and deconsecrated Mancunian church made excellent use of the various angles permitted by the play’s staging in traverse.
This deft camerawork is in evidence during the play’s chaotic opening scene. As she kneels cowled in prayer, Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth is cast into shadow by a flickering crescent of candles. This momentary stillness is shattered by the sounds of war; martial drums echoe as sprinting warriors clash, bleed and die on the churned mud which covers the stage. The rapid progression of shots make it easier to accept the staged violence as real, lingering for no more than a couple of seconds on any one struggle.
Later, though, the converse proves true. The suspension of disbelief required from the theatrical audience proves harder to achieve in a popcorn-stickied cinema seat. The unforgiving camera reminds us constantly that dead men were still breathing and that swords were not being swung with true menace.
The staging does not always help here either, for example when Macbeth gazes in fear at a dagger ludicrously and obviously suspended from wires. “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Yes, Kenneth, and we can all see it dangling from a piece of string. (Other challenges were better met – the writhing bodies which formed the demons in Macbeth’s second visit to the witches formed a spectacle impressive enough for any motion picture)
Individual performances, on the other hand, mostly benefit from the closer focus of the camera. The three witches are superb, forming a wriggling mass of insane sexuality which was drawn inexorably toward murder and mayhem as the production wears on.
Ray Fearon as Macduff is a triumph, a man of colossal stature whose colossal grief upon learning on the death of his son explodes with seismic intensity through the church. However, upon Macduff’s (somewhat anti-climatic) defeat of the usurper Macbeth, it seems slightly absurd to accept Alexander Vlahos’ underwhelming and somewhat vapid Malcolm as the rightful heir.
There is far more regal gravitas in Fearon’s character and also in Jimmy Yuill’s stentorian Banquo, both prior to his demise and in the ghost scene where he forged an effectively sinister connection with Branagh.
This is what stopped Branagh’s convincing and accomplished Macbeth from being amongst the great performances of the role. He was excellent in communion with other actors but seemed to lack a final drive into madness following the death of his wife (save for the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, delivered with flawless grief and nihilism).
He and Kingston are a fascinating, complex and sexually-charged pair – a tartan-clad Bonnie and Clyde – but this focus on their intimacy left their individual characterisation lacking in depth. Kingston’s sleep-walking scene, for example, has the air of overwrought amateur dramatics, while her scenes with her husband are alive with nuance and murderous ambition.
The play does not lack originality, particularly in its focus on the sometimes-neglected Macbeth and his Lady. More could be made of Branagh and Kingston’s personal journeys into insanity, but at its best this production is an unnerving portrait of a far-off time all too familiar in its naked ambition.
The National Theatre broadcast this production of Macbeth to cinemas around the world on 20th July 2013 as part of the Manchester International Festival – more information may be found here.