Shakespeare comes in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no better illustration of this than the two Macbeths just opened in London and Manchester. The play’s haunting images of ambition, greed and obsession invest both productions – but in tone and effect they are quite distinct. In truth, the only sensation common to both is the hardness of the pews. Bring a cushion.
At the Globe, director Eve Best mines the play for unexpected humour and gets real laughs from the audience. Here Macbeth’s horrified reaction to Banquo’s ghost – visible to no one else at the feast – looks ridiculous. We are placed firmly outside the consciousness of this tortured man, looking in as the absurd scene unfolds. There are moments when the production comes close to slapstick but it is saved by sensitive performances and Olly Fox’s stirring period score, which is played by musicians on the balcony.
Joseph Millson is a captivating, swarthy Macbeth and Samantha Spiro brings a steely composure to the part of his bullying wife, barking orders and insults with relish. Her every move exudes a scary competence, making her swift descent into madness all the more poignant. The intensity of her madness matches that of her prior conviction – but she has lost control entirely.
Despite such performances, some of the inner turmoil so crucial to Macbeth’s power has been sacrificed to the production’s comic tenor. It leaves no lingering sense of all that has been lost to ambition, destroyed by a man who never gets what he wants. Rather, it ends with a clap-along Highland fling, the groundlings forgetting their tired legs to make merry.
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s Macbeth, part of this year’s Manchester International Festival, is no such crowd-pleaser. It begins mysteriously (if you wish it to remain mysterious, stop reading now), with the “meeting point” for the performance revealed by email only the day before. I arrive to find a vast, red-brick former mill not far from the city centre. There is a “pop up” bar in an upstairs room, which wears its shabby chic look well – grubby windows and a map of Scotland chalked on to the floorboards.
We are led in small groups to St Peter’s, a 19th-century Anglican church nearby that held its last service some 50 years ago. It has been converted for the production into a space that is more installation art than theatre. High-ceilinged and low-lit, with a cluster of candles flickering at the altar, it is an almost overwhelming setting for a play about sin and the supernatural – as if the place itself were a character, or force, in the drama. The audience sits in long stalls, and the actors make use of the apse, balcony and the nave, whose floor is piled with thick mud (it even rains during one visceral battle scene). Neil Austin’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design serve mostly as intensifiers, making the violins and bagpipes of the Globe’s production sound folksy in comparison.
Here, the characters operate in a hostile world they cannot begin to control. Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth cannot mask her vulnerability, as if she doubts from the beginning that ambition alone will be enough. When she calls on “murdering ministers” to “unsex me here”, it is a desperate plea. She is not marshalling her resources, but relinquishing power to an unknown force.
As well as co-directing, Branagh takes the title role – his first Shakespeare performance in 10 years. His Macbeth is a heady mix of “vaunting ambition” and sickening doubt, veering between frenzy and a strange numbness. “I have almost forgot the taste of fears,” he says simply, as one who no longer knows himself. There is nothing laughable here about Macbeth’s ghostly visions: he is plainly a man out of his mind. Branagh speaks Shakespeare’s verse as if it were his native tongue, sometimes at such a pace it is impossible to unpack each new image, but the intonation is so natural-sounding that the sense is clear.
Both productions portray powerfully the Macbeths’ relationship. In Branagh and Ashford’s, the power play has a palpably sexual edge. Indeed sex is the currency of the Macbeths’ marriage. It is the tool with which they bribe each other, Lady Macbeth taunting him with her words – “Are you a man?” – and he showing dominance through physical force.
In the gloom and sudden spotlight, everything is sinister, double-edged. The weird sisters (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan) are far weirder than in the Globe production. They convulse and leer, then rant and ramble like children who have not yet mastered perfect speech. Yet they alone seem safe in the knowledge of their power.
While the glinting humour of Best’s production for the Globe feels fresh, Branagh and Ashford’s gets to the terrifying heart of Macbeth’s mystery and bleakness. The large cast is superb and the pace never flags. And there is no interval, no respite from this truly immersive experience. It does not simply rely on its setting – a temptation with immersive theatre – but harnesses its resonant power, yielding a host of compelling performances.
(Manchester International Festival)
The MIF ‘Macbeth’ will be broadcast to UK cinemas by National Theatre Live on July 20