Another new production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Macbeth, often elicits a familiar sigh.  “Again?”  This, particularly in light of the fact that three — count them, three – separate new and large-scale productions of Macbeth have opened in England in 2013 alone!  Nonetheless, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s return to live Shakespeare, after a decade’s drought in this regard, at the Manchester International Festival’s production of Macbeth is not to be missed.  It is an electrifying experience.

The entire run was sold out in the first eight minutes of internet sales, so it is a blessing that the production is available for live HD transmission via National Theatre Live cinema broadcasts.  To experience this Macbeth in community, on the large screen in HD, is a must.  With very rare exception, almost everything about this production is excellent.

Let me begin with the staging.  It is unequaled.  The Manchester production does not take place in a theatre.  No.  Instead, co-directors Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare adaptations, Harry Potter, Wallander, My Week with Marilyn) and Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) use a deconsecrated Victorian church to tell this tragedy.  And such a clever use, too.

Production designer Christopher Oram places most of the dramatic action in the nave of the deconsecrated church.  Here, the nave is wet, muddy, damp and chock-full of medieval slush, serving as shortcut to the Scottish moors or a musty Scot castle.  So effective is this use of atmosphere it even comes complete with rain to enhance the mood and feel of damp despair and dark wickedness.  The audience, seated “on both sides of the nave/stage” so to speak, is choir-style and intimate.  At one end of the nave, in place of the old altar space, is a semi-circle of hard slate, stained glass, and candles.  At the other end, where the organ loft once stood, we have hidden, yet operable, gothic window vistas and tall castle parapets. These elements are effectively used for the entrance and disappearance of the three sister-soothsayers;  to offer the audience watchful ghost visions and; later, Lady Macbeth’s sleep walk on the castle corridors.  This production’s placement of such narrative devices within the context of this church space is genius.  And the actors’ wading through the muddy spaces – all the while staining their costumes with each pass through the nave/stage —  makes the narrative action so much more real, effective, dirty, damp, and devious.

Fortunately, the cast equals the brilliance of the staging.  Supporting standouts include Ray Fearon’s Macduff, Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo, and Rosalie Craig’s Lady Macduff.  This reviewer was particularly impressed by a young Pip Pearce as Macduff’s Son.  Nonetheless, the standouts, to be expected, are Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth and Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth.  The two actors are well suited for their roles.  Their chemistry is so believable that we can see, in their performance, how each one feeds the other in ambition, greed, doubt, and sex.  If only Alex Kingston could have toned down the epileptic-fit-robotics of her sleepwalking scenes.  To this viewer, I found these actions over dramatic and, in effect, diluted the effective language of Lady Macbeth’s closing soliloquies.  To find such a minor flaw in one bright and stellar diamond is to nitpick indeed.

The production is breathtaking, literally.  At the play’s conclusion — after all that blood and after all those murders — grace returns to Scotland with its rightful king.  And the audience sighs.  Sighs with gratitude and wonder.  Stunning.  Catch a “live” cinema broadcast near you.  See

Armin’s Grade: A+

Theatre Review by Armin Callo, Contributing Editor

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