The man who would be king: Kenneth Branagh makes a long-awaited return to Shakespeare

The actor will star as Macbeth in Manchester next week. Paul Taylor predicts another compelling performance from a star who could soon run the National Theatre.

It's 10 years – if you exclude his rendering of the "isle is full of noises" speech from The Tempest at the Olympics opening ceremony – since Kenneth Branagh trod the boards in Shakespeare. That was in Michael Grandage's acclaimed production of Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible. And before that he hadn't appeared on stage at all for more than a decade. So his appearance as Macbeth – in the hotly anticipated production that he is co-directing with Rob Ashford in a deconsecrated church as part of this year's Manchester International Festival – must be deemed a major event.

Once again, one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation has chosen to stage a rare live brush with the Bard at a venue outside London and, on this occasion, he has set his face against doing any promotional interviews. But his American collaborator, Ashford – an award-winning director/choreographer on both sides of the Atlantic (he picked up the Olivier gong for his Donmar revival of Anna Christie) – is eloquent on the subject of how the intimate site-specific location has helped to shape the production (which is set in primitive times).

"At first, the Weird Sisters seem out of place in a church. The journey – a conversation and struggle between good and evil – is to make the place feel more like a home to them. And we earn the right to do so by being very specific about when good turns to evil and why."

The mild-looking, matey Branagh might not seem ideally equipped to transmit a sense of wickedness. But it's remarkable how expertly and disturbingly he has managed to do so in he past by tweaking his natural strengths. His mesmeric portrayal of the SS General, Reinhard Heydrich, in the TV film Conspiracy (2001), was a chilling study of calculated, brisk geniality masking a moral void and fluctuating into subtle intimidation as the character chaired, with a faintly impatient matter-of-factness, the Wannsee Conference that agreed on the Final Solution.

His Richard III, more malignant music-hall comedian perhaps than Satanic joker, brilliantly exploited the actor's easy rapport with an audience, making even lines of dialogue sound like insolently withering asides. This tactic suborned the punters into a sniggering conspiracy behind the backs – or, rather, before the very eyes – of the courtiers who were treated to the kind of psychotic bare-faced hypocrisy that paralyses opposition.

Reviewing this production, Irving Wardle dryly noted that, "Throughout, Branagh's decisiveness and speed are accompanied by his famed ability, off stage and on, to get people to follow him. In that sense, the performance verges on self-parody." Back in 2002, however, the British press were still, by and large, the exception to this rule of susceptibility to his powers.

"Branagh-bashing" had long been a national sport in newspapers, as dependable an activity as those annual bouts of over-hyping Tim Henman. Our cultural preference for self-deprecation and good losers was affronted by this working-class Belfast-born boy from Reading who, having gone through Rada and the RSC, had the temerity to found his own Renaissance Theatre Company at the grand old age of 26, then dare to court comparison with Laurence Olivier by directing and starring in his own movie version of Henry V (1989) and then add insult to injury by mounting a charm offensive on Hollywood.

In the past 10 years, though, Branagh has regained the respect of the commentariat and extended his public appeal through a series of searching performances that demonstrate a new willingness to draw on the self-doubts and vulnerabilities of battered experience. He's no longer the charmed wunderkind but the survivor of life that has had its share of bruising set-backs – both personal (such as the break-up of his first marriage to Emma Thompson) and professional (the spectacular failure, for example, of the big-budget movie Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).

His stunning portrayal of the hero in Chekhov's Ivanov, which launched Michael Grandage's Donmar in the West End season in 2008, is the most painfully penetrating study I've ever seen of a man in the grip of clinical depression. "He does have a massive degree of self-knowledge," says Grandage who reveals that "he brought the idea of Ivanov to me. He was pushing 50 then and he knew he had something to bring to character."

Meanwhile, on television in Wallander, Branagh seems to shed several layers of skin and to put up no defensive shield of "acting" in those brooding, bristly-cheeked close-ups that take us deep into the gloom of Henning Mankell's introspective, messed-up, middle-aged detective. And in a revival of David Mamet's Edmond on the Olivier stage in 2003, the actor surprised even his most ardent admirers by the raw, uninhibited manner in which he was prepared to lay himself bare emotionally (and, at one point, physically) as he charted the rapid, horribly plausible descent into hell of a confused, unremarkable New York businessman.

Edmond is Branagh's first and only role to date at the National. But he let slip in an interview not long ago that one of his remaining ambitions is to run a theatre. This has led to speculation that he may make a bid to succeed Nicholas Hytner when the latter steps down in 2015 after 12 exceptionally rich and boundary-breaking years at the helm of the NT. It would certainly be a case of ironic patterning if the man once hailed, for better and worse, as the "new Olivier" – and who recently impersonated "Sir Laurence" with wicked perceptiveness in the movie My Week with Marilyn – were to be first actor-manager to run the National since the early 1970s when Olivier, its founding chief, handed over to Peter Hall and a subsequent succession of four Cambridge-educated directors in the top job.

It's arguable, though, that the international reputation and clout, the populist instincts and the pulling-power that the NT selection board might find an attractive proposition are the very attributes which make it rather unlikely that he could ever wean himself from the movie world for long enough. And his detractors, unsurprisingly less eager to go on the record, point to his erratic taste and ask, "Where are his relationships with current playwrights? Who would be his equivalent of Tom Morris [the former NT associate who opened up the theatre to devised work and Handspring Puppets and co-directed the phenomenally successful War Horse]?

Michael Grandage, who thinks it would be an exciting move, says, "What's fascinating is that [Branagh] hasn't ruled himself out" – unlike Grandage himself, Sam Mendes, Marianne Elliott and other possible contenders whose careers, for the moment, have been diverted elsewhere, such as Josie Rourke at the Donmar and Rupert Goold at the Almeida. But it's by no means clear whether he has thrown his hat into the ring or intends to do so.

As for the imminent unveiling of Macbeth (with Alex Kingston playing his consort), this comes some 26 years after he first planned to tackle the role – for Renaissance in 1987 directed by Albert Finney. And that's all to the good. Back then he would have proffered precocious technical prowess, now he will bring a weathered depth of soul to Shakespeare's insomniac burn-out hero who is desolately conscious, by the end, that he has survived the capacity to feel.

One is understandably loath to go into the prophecy business given the outcome of Macbeth, but a compelling performance from Branagh looks to be a reasonably safe prediction.

'Macbeth', at a venue to announced in Manchester city centre (0844 375 2017) 4 to 20 July. There will be a National Theatre Live broadcast on 20 July

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on