St Peter’s Church, Blossom St, Manchester

Theatre review: Macbeth - Kenneth Branagh's spot of bother at the Manchester International Festival

Branagh’s Manchester Macbeth goes head-to-head with a London staging  at Shakespeare’s Globe, and it’s a draw

Turn, hellhound, turn! So cries Macduff in the climactic battle scene of Macbeth, mustering all his strength to slay Shakespeare’s eponymous tyrant and deliver Scotland from the forces of evil. Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth – a rugged, sweating warrior in medieval tartan (albeit with an English accent) – is finally going to bite the dust, or rather the squelching bog beneath his feet.

Co-directed by Rob Ashford and Branagh for the Manchester International Festival, this high-profile production performed in a deconsecrated church will additionally be relayed to an outdoor big screen in Manchester, and to cinemas nationwide, on 20 July.)

The nave’s central aisle looks like a bull run. It’s been bounded by a palisade of dark planks and covered in peat-black earth – with traverse-style seating. In the apse at the church’s East end, a myriad candles flicker. But at the West end, the organ loft has been converted into a soiled fortress wall, in which the Weird Sisters materialise. They are a ghoul-girl trinity, a travesty of saints in arched niches – faces blackened, eyeballs rolling, jittering like deranged monkeys.

They’re getting their degenerate kicks out of the bloodshed unleashed below. It seems Ashford and Branagh also think that acting out as much slaughter as possible adds oomph. Rather than being reported, the play’s opening war is waged before us, a mass of clanging swords under pouring rain.  Later, we see the sacrilegious murder of King Duncan too, his bed being placed where the altar would have been.

Certainly, this production has dramatic thrills. Hell’s flames blaze through grilles. Daggers uncannily hover in mid air (courtesy of illusion consultant Paul Kieve) and, on press night, sparks showered into the front row as Ray Fearon’s Macduff clashed blades with Branagh.

And yet the overall effect is curiously dull. This Macbeth feels as if it is bidding to be turned into a middlebrow movie with goth-horror appeal, some gallimaufry of Rob Roy and The Exorcist. With honorable exceptions – including John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill, both sturdy as Duncan and Banquo – much of the acting is lame or hammy. Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth, alas, borders on the embarrassing, acting vampish with no conviction.

Few brilliantly insightful new interpretations emerge, although it is notable that Branagh’s Macbeth is stammeringly guilt-wracked when ordering Banquo’s assassination, hugging a blanket round himself as he slumps in his throne. Though it may strike some as great classical acting, his performance is a curate’s egg, in truth. He is often very good, looks the part, understands the psychology, delivers Shakespeare’s verse with a fluidity that sounds fresh. But then there’ll be an affected pause, a milked vowel (“Owwwwwt brief candle”), a moment so mannered you’d think you were watching Edmund Kean. The MIF has, surely, cast aside its avant-gardism for something more old-school here.

To open another production of Macbeth in the same week was bold on the part of Shakespeare’s Globe. Whether intending to rival or to ride on the back of Branagh, the London venture, entrusted to actress Eve Best, a first-time director, is risky.

Against the backdrop of a white stockade, Joseph Millson’s Macbeth and Samantha Spiro’s Lady Macbeth seem unusually innocent at first. Returning from the battlefield with a leather satchel slung over his jerkin, Millson’s tall, slim Macbeth (with an English accent) looks timid and youthful. Billy Boyd’s salty (and Scots) Banquo accosts the Weird Sisters with scorn, even as Millson shrinks away. In turn, Spiro is girlishly breathless on hearing of her husband’s augured promotions, and she beseeches (rather than commands) evil spirits to imbue her with regicidal cruelty.

In shunning obvious Gothic malignity, the production is mildly refreshing. Millson excels at combining clear logic and frenzied anxiety in his vacillating soliloquies. Excellent supporting performances include Gawn Grainger’s cheerily doddery Duncan. Nonetheless, Finty Williams turns Macduff’s spouse into a hollering fishwife, and the Weird Sisters are nearer Marcel Marceau than black magic, neither poignant nor scary. The production finds comic rhythms in more scenes than I’ve seen before, not least in Banquo’s ghost. Best pushes this too far though, giving Macbeth a touch of Basil Fawlty at the banquet.

In Fences, Troy Maxson’s home is his castle. At least, it looks that way in this West End transfer – from Bath’s Theatre Royal – where Lenny Henry plays Troy, a lowly garbage collector who has his foot on the property ladder. August Wilson’s domestic drama, written in the 1980s, depicts African-American struggles and nascent social changes at the end of the Fifties, with some still-topical reverberations.

Since serving time and going straight, Troy has laboured to feed his wife, Rose, and their two sons – keeping the loan sharks at bay. Now, in his spare time, he’s also constructing a fence around their two-up two-down in Pittsburgh. So, we find Henry’s Troy hanging out in his dusty yard sawing planks,  shooting the breeze with buddy Jim (Colin McFarlane) and getting frisky with Rose (Tanya Moodie) as she hangs washing.

Sadly, the marital bliss can’t last. Dirty laundry of the metaphorical kind is piling up offstage. Love and duty become segregated and Troy assumes the role of crushing patriarch, even while challenging a racist pecking order at work.

He rags his jazz-musician son, Lyons (Peter Bakolé), as a waster. Worse, he trashes the younger boy Cory’s dream of becoming a football prodigy, because he himself couldn’t get major-league promotion as a baseball hotshot when young.

Henry’s stage acting has come on by leaps and bounds, and this is, by miles, his best performance to date. He’s particularly splendid at the outset, grizzled and slouching in his overalls, kicking back on the porch steps and exuding humorous warmth. He talks out of the side of his mouth, capturing the earthy, subtle lyricism of Wilson’s American vernacular. At the start, he and Moodie seem at home with each other, conveying the braided intricacies of a long relationship.

It must be said, nevertheless, that director Paulette Randall’s production isn’t as moving as it might be, and some of the supporting cast need fine-tuning, particularly Ako Mitchell, unconvincing as Gabriel, Troy’s brain-damaged brother.

While this isn’t on a par with the National’s superb revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner – set in 1950s Harlem – it’s fascinating to see both.  Might someone now rise to the challenge of staging Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, spanning the 20th century? That would be seriously epic.

‘Macbeth’ to 21 July (mif.co.uk, or for tickets to 20 July’s big screen relay call 0844 375 2013); ‘Macbeth’ to 13 Oct (shakespearesglobe.com); ‘Fences’ to 14 Sept (duchesstheatre.co.uk)

NEXT WEEK A spot of therapy with Circle Mirror Transformation

Critic’s choice

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are electrifyingly sexy, witty and moody in Nöel Coward’s Private Lives, at London’s Gielgud Theatre (to 21 Sept). Devotees of the avant-garde veteran, Robert Wilson, won’t want to miss  Willem Dafoe in The Old Woman, a surrealist tale written under Stalin, at the Palace, Manchester.

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