Will nobody rid me of this turbulent Freud?
Last November we went to see a live transmission of the National Theatre production of Timon of Athens. A decent production was all but spoiled by Emma Freud’s patronising introduction, and during the intermission she conducted a dreadfully banal interview with Nicholas Hytner. It was almost enough to make me run screaming from the theatre.
So on Saturday we went to Canterbury to see the filmed production of Macbeth from the Manchester International Festival. Only it turned out that this was done in conjunction with the National Theatre, and bloody Emma Freud popped up again to introduce the play for all us kiddies who’ve never seen a theatre before, and to conduct an interview with the co-director, Rob Ashford, that was enough to make the interview with Hytner seem the height of intellectual sophistication. On top of which, the matiness about Ken this and Ken that was extraordinarily emetic. Only this time, if I had run screaming from the theatre, it would at least have saved me from watching the play.
Some details: this was Kenneth Branagh’s vehicle. It was conceived by Branagh, it was staged in a former church which was Branagh’s idea, it was co-directed by Branagh, and, of course, it starred Branagh. It was, we were pointedly told, his first stage performance in Shakespeare for over ten years. We were also told, repeatedly, that the entire run sold out in under nine minutes. We were also told that on the first preview the entire audience gave a standing ovation.
In other words, and we could be in no doubt about this, this was an EVENT, and we should think ourselves jolly lucky to be privileged to watch it.
Well it is only fair to say that Branagh’s performance was one of the best things about the production. But there wasn’t really that much else to rave about. The production was ill-conceived, derivative, dreadfully choreographed, poorly spoken, and consisted of spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
I have a slightly ambiguous relationship with Macbeth. It was the set play in my third year at school, and at the end of that year, lo and behold, we found it was the set play for our O-Level course as well. So I studied that play for three straight years, during which I learned the sequence of events intimately if not much else. I saw one indifferent stage production, at the Library Theatre in Manchester, and we watched Orson Welles’s peculiar film version. Since passing my O-Levels, I have not seen the play again until now.
I have never disliked the play. If you think about it, it has battles and murder, witches and ghosts; what could be better judged to engage bored teenage boys? All the same, three years of school English, even with a pretty good teacher, is more than enough to suck the juice out of any Shakespeare. I’ve seen so much good Shakespeare since then, but I’ve never been moved to seek out a production of Macbeth.
My relationship with Branagh is somewhat less ambiguous. The first time Maureen and I went to the theatre together it was to see the RSC production of Henry V which starred Branagh. At that point we had vaguely heard the name before, but knew nothing else about him. His stage presence, his performance, were electrifying. A little later we saw Hamlet starring Roger Rees. It was terrible, one of those Dictionary of Quotations performances where there was a slight pause before every famous line. But there in the background was Branagh as Laertes, and he was superb, making up for everything else that was bad about the production.
Back in those days, when we could still afford to go to the theatre, we saw Branagh several times and every time, whether he was the lead or not, his was the performance that drew your eye, he was the one you listened for. We have not seen any play, any production, that was not made better by Branagh’s performance. Well, until Macbeth.
This production is, as I said, staged in a decommissioned church. Judging from what we could see, it was not a very large church. The audience was on either side of the nave, leaving an aisle roughly wide enough for five people to stand shoulder to shoulder, in which most of the action took place. What had been the altar was jam-packed with candles allowing a small stage area for certain scenes that are meant to be to one side of the main action. Facing the altar at the other end of the aisle were three niches closed by doors in which the witches would appear, and above this a high platform that was used about three times in the play, most crucially for the sleepwalking scene.
This very restricted playing area was covered by god knows how many cameras, so that our view swooped and shifted all the time. Sometimes, rather too many times, we looked directly down upon the aisle, so that we could see how (poorly) the actors were moving, but not much else. This, of course, is a view that no member of the theatre audience would actually have. But then, as in the previous NT film production we had seen, the decision had clearly been made not to treat this as a filmed play but as a second-rate television programme. Ever major speech was filmed in close up, so you could never see how the other actors were responding. At any one moment we saw only a small portion of what was happening, which is totally unlike a theatre experience.
There is one other thing about the set that I need to mention: the floor of the aisle was covered in soil. This was so that the opening scene, which shows two armies clashing, and which is played out needlessly with rain falling upon the aisle, a direct rip-off from Branagh’s Henry V all those years ago, could take place in churning mud. Which meant that every other scene in the play, the banquet, the murder of Duncan, all the festivities and intrigues within castle walls, are all played out upon churning mud. When Lady Macbeth flutters about to calm the guests while her husband has a fit at the sight of Banquo’s ghost, the hem of her long gown is stained with mud. What seems like a neat idea for one bit of spectacle to open the performance becomes stupid when it has to be carried across the whole of the rest of the play. But then, this whole production is all about spectacle, not about sense. As Maureen said: ‘Who would have thought the old play to have so much mud in it!’
One other thing, and a most curious thing it is too. Immediately after the opening battle, which is at least implied in the text of the play, we see one soldier approach another and hand over a purse of money (the camera zooms in close to make sure we do not miss this). The recipient of this money then gathers other men around him and with swords drawn, they ambush Macbeth and Banquo. All of this is witnessed by Duncan, as the camera is most careful to show us. It is an ambiguous scene, and stems from nothing in the text, but the implication I would take from it is that Duncan is in some way complicit in an act of treachery against his hero Macbeth, which seems to offer a sort of justification for Macbeth’s own usurpation of the crown. This really makes no sense.
All of this takes place before a single word has been uttered. But it is when the actors start to open their mouths that things really go wrong.
Let us begin, as the play does, with the Weird Sisters. These are three young actresses in nondescript mud-coloured gowns, their faces and hair caked with mud, which I presume is meant to imply something shamanical about them. And they shriek, their voices high and shrill, so that I could not distinguish more than 50% of what they said, and the words I could distinguish were mostly those that I, and everyone else, would be familiar with. And when they were not shrieking, they were running around waving their arms. It was a cartoon version of wildness, but then that puts it on a par with the rest of what we saw.
Duncan was played by John Shrapnel, an actor for whom I usually have a great deal of respect, but here there was a flatness to his performance, as if he was going through the paces. It is, of course, a pretty thankless role, soon dispatched, but if you are looking for some semblance of nobility and worth you wouldn’t find it in this performance. After Duncan’s murder, Shrapnel returned in a couple of minor roles, but apart from the fact that he was not now wearing a crown there was no difference in the performance.
If Shrapnel’s performance was too quiet, Ray Fearon was too noisy as MacDuff, always shouting and storming up and down the aisles and waving his arms about. The only time this excess of gesture makes any real sense is when he learns of the death of his wife and child (though I can’t help thinking that he and everyone else must have known this would happen when he abandoned them in Scotland and fled south to join Malcolm). And because everything he says is at top volume, it is not always easy to get the sense of the words, or even, on some occasions, to tell what the words actually are.
And then there is Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth. Now, in her first scene, reading the letter from Macbeth and then that awkward line, ‘unsex me here’, (Shakespeare’s speeches for women seem to be full of such knowing references to the fact that they are played by a boy), I thought she had got the role just right. As a conniving woman ambitious for her husband I was prepared to believe her; unfortunately, from that moment on things just got worse. By the time we got to the sleepwalking scene, she was hilariously bad. First the voice would change, from one word to the next, from conversational to high and fluty to a low roar, like a fake medium trying to do all the voices. And this vocal mayhem was accompanied by the most ludicrous physical performance I think I have witnessed. I got the impression that she was playing it as if she had been possessed by the devil in some horror film like The Omen. She would stiffly drop forward and jerk upright like a puppet controlled by an amateur. When she left the stage she had her right arm thrust high above the head, the hand drooping, like she was being led away by some monstrous force. That was not Lady Macbeth in a torment of nightmare that was driving her mad, that was Lady Macbeth preparing for her head to spin around and spew green stuff as in The Exorcist. A more pathetic reading of Lady Macbeth I really cannot imagine.
As for the rest of the cast … Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos) seemed to have his elbows superglued to his sides, which made for the most awkward gestures. The doctor (Benny Young) seemed to be channelling Andrew Cruickshank from Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, but at least he essayed a Scottish accent (though most of the minor roles were so busy shouting it was hard to tell if they were trying any accent at all). I know Macbeth is one of the shorter plays, but much of the verse speaking seemed to be rushed so that the whole thing felt rather truncated. As for the physical performances, a lot of the time, as Maureen noted, the actors seemed to be looking for their marks, behaviour which might suggest they were somewhat under-rehearsed. That certainly seems to tie in with the action scenes, the battles, the approach of Birnam Wood. You got the impression that none of them had handled a sword before and didn’t know how to move, the choreography, in that respect, was very poor. (On the plus side, they were extraordinarily efficient at getting all the dead bodies off the set without corpses having to stand up and walk away.)
It wasn’t all bad, though there were far fewer good bits than there should have been.
It says something for a production of Macbeth, as Maureen pointed out to me, when the stand-out scene, the performance that nearly rescues the whole play, is the Porter. This is usually played as a garrulous old man, but here they had a young man (Daniel Ings) who brings to it a fluid and believable drunkenness. A wonderful performance that would stand out even if so much around it was not so poor.
The other brave bit of casting that really works is having Jimmy Yuill play Banquo as an old, white-haired, white-bearded man. Yuill has performed regularly with Branagh, and you could sense a rapport between them that you didn’t get with the other actors. But Banquo is usually presented as being about the same age as Macbeth so they are equals; here, by making him so much older (and older than Yuill actually is), he becomes more of a mentor, there’s a fatherly affection. Which means that when Macbeth begins to doubt Banquo and then plot to murder him, it is not simply the elimination of a rival but the tearing down of everything that has led Macbeth to this point.
And then there is Macbeth himself, Kenneth Branagh. His ability to speak Shakespeare’s lines is as good as ever. Every word is clear, every word bears its proper weight, the sense of what he is saying and the insight the words bring into the torments of the mind, all are crystal clear. Branagh is, of course, older now; you see this in particular in the battle scenes where his movements are heavier, more ponderous, less deft than they used to be. But there is one moment, during the banquet scene, where he whirls around from Banquo’s ghost and finds himself sprawled across the table, when we get a reminder of the finely judged physicality of Branagh’s performances of old. But it is this performance, if anything, that makes the play worth seeing.