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
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