Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth

Macbeth, St Peter’s Ancoats, 12/13 July 2013

The precise location of the Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth was shrouded in mystery, described only as a deconsecrated church somewhere in Manchester. However, a clue was provided in the very first announcement of Kenneth Branagh’s return to the Shakespearean stage.

The web page giving the initial sparse details concluded with an enigmatic credit “With thanks to John Summers at the Hallé.” Why would a theatre production thank an orchestra? A little detective work revealed that the Hallé had recently completed the renovation of St Peter’s Ancoats as a rehearsal space, suggesting very strongly that this was the mystery performance venue.

Something was very obviously afoot at St Peter’s: a clutch of two-storey portable buildings were huddled at one end; shrouded scaffold platforms by the apse windows carried lights that enabled full control of interior illumination; and the rose window at the other end had a slidable blackout cover with a light on a crane positioned to shine through it. Stage lights were fixed to the outside of the upper windows along the sides of the building, also with appropriate light-tight sealing.

The interior of the church was striking. A central trough filled with eight inches of mud ran the length of the nave, while the back of the semi-circular apse was lined with dozens of church candles gradually being lit by a veiled woman. A large cross was suspended midair, slanted forward at the edge of the apse. At the other end stood a wall of wood planks behind the top of which was a balcony.

The audience lined both sides of the traverse in four raked blocks of benches, raised above the mud floor so that those on the front row were slightly higher than the cast. There were a total of six entrances for the cast, two at each end and two in the gap between the blocks on each side.

The airless interior was dark, hot and infused with the rank smell of fetid mud. The best tactic for dealing with the intense heat was to remain motionless and adopt a stoic fortitude. Whether by accident or design, the audience was immersed into challenging physical conditions before the start of the performance. This served as preparation for the psychic heat and claustrophobia of the drama.

The performance began with the sound of monastic chanting offstage. Three sets of double doors in the wall opened to reveal three alcoves in which stood the three witches (Charlie Cameron, Anjana Vasan & Laura Elsworthy) (1.1). They were dressed in grey dresses, with their faces entirely covered in grey mud which made their wide-eyed stares all the scarier.

They appeared to hover up and down, gesticulating, sometimes adopting the posture of religious statues, as they spoke of their next meeting. Their voices were a mixture of the maniacal and the childlike; this was especially the case with the 1st Witch.

All three repeated the name “Macbeth”, the intended subject of their assignation, and reached outward, drawing attention to the figure of Macbeth standing at the apse. He was clad in medieval battle dress, his sword drawn.

The references to “Paddock”, “Graymalkin” and “Anon” were cut. Having declared that “Fair is foul and foul is fair”, they paused after “hover through the fog”, accentuating the last word in the phrase before adding “and filthy air”. The quirkiness of their delivery underscored their otherness.

The second scene was replaced by a noisy battle sequence (1.2). Macbeth was joined by his fellow warriors and charged down the traverse to fight the enemy rushing towards them. A rain machine running the length of the nave poured water down onto the muddy battlefield. Sword clashed against sword as soldiers fell dead.

The witches continued to watch the battle and writhed in ecstasy at the chaos and carnage.

In early performances, when the mud had not yet been trampled down, this battle resulted in mud flying upwards to splatter the front row of the audience. People reported having their hair caked in the stuff. However, on 12/13 July the feared mud apocalypse did not materialise. Only two small splatters reached this reviewer’s trousers in the second row on the Saturday performance.

The battle paused as the enemy held Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos) hostage, suspending him upside down with a sword at this throat. Duncan (John Shrapnel), Macbeth and Banquo (Jimmy Yuill) stood at a distance for a while. Duncan moved forward, took his crown from his head and offered it to the man he addressed as Macdonwald in a gesture of surrender. Malcolm shook his head slowly from side to side imploring his father not to proceed. Macdonwald advanced and it seemed that Duncan would surrender his crown to save the life of his son.

As the two rivals met face to face, Macbeth stood sideways on to them. On a signal from Duncan, Macbeth killed the rebel leader as Duncan retreated, his crown still safely in his possession. Other soldiers rushed forward to rescue Malcolm from his shocked captors.

Macbeth and Banquo returned to the apse and knelt to pray as the witches called out “Thane of Cawdor” in prophetic recognition of Macbeth’s coming promotion.

Duncan passed over the balcony and looked at the pair before disappearing once again.

A single enemy warrior appeared in front of the wall. He offered a purse of money to another who had joined him. Others followed and their numbers gradually increased, while Macbeth and Banquo continued to pray. They became aware of the forces gathering against them and turned to face them. Another battle ensued as Macbeth and Banquo charged against the enemy.

With the foe vanquished a second time, Macbeth and Banquo surveyed the battlefield and slain bodies as Macbeth uttered his first line (1.3).

On the Friday night, Kenneth Branagh clearly said “So fair and foul a day I have not seen” but got the line the right way round on the Saturday.

It seemed unlikely that this was an accident, given the iconic nature of the line and the way it mirrors the phrasing of the witches in 1.1. Branagh seemed at other points to be varying his performance deliberately. As co-director he had the freedom to make his own performance decisions. In what was most likely his last chance to perform this role professionally, he could have been consciously playing with the possibilities of the part for his own satisfaction and to keep the rest of the cast on their toes.

Banquo and Macbeth saw the witches as they appeared in their alcoves. Banquo’s mention of their chappy fingers and beards was cut. They hailed Macbeth and Banquo with their prophecies.

Macbeth approached them demanding further explanation, but the witches disappeared behind the closing alcove doors, leaving the two warriors to puzzle things out.

Banquo wondered whether they were mad, while Macbeth factually reiterated what had been said.

Ross (Norman Bowman) and Angus (Dominic Thorburn) brought the news of Macbeth’s new title. The expository information about Cawdor’s treachery and execution here meant that nothing had been lost by not dramatising the dialogue relating to Cawdor in 1.2.

A clear difference emerged between Banquo, who expressed scepticism about the prophecies and referred to the witches as “instruments of Darkness”, while Macbeth came across as upbeat and convinced that they were telling the truth. The first part of his aside “Two truths are told…” was directed at Banquo, forming part of Macbeth’s argument with him, rather than spoken to us as a rumination.

Macbeth left the others, stood in the apse and pondered “This supernatural soliciting”. The full implications of the prophecies relating to him took Macbeth by surprise, thoughts striking him in mid-speech.

“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…” saw Macbeth stress “murder” quizzically as if shocked at the concept which had popped into his mind. The word “fantastical” was spoken in a humorously defensive jibber as if he were trying to defuse the horror of his imaginings. He shook his hands, relating how all this “shakes so my single state of man”.

Execution

Duncan barked out his question “Is execution done on Cawdor?” (1.4). This was his first line in the production and it showed him to be as gruff and unpleasant as his truce trick in the battle scene had suggested.

He and his officers stomped around in the mud in the aftermath of the fighting, which underscored the messy business in which they had been engaged. The talk of treachery and executions while ankle-deep in filth felt very appropriate.

Duncan was delighted when he greeted Macbeth, pointing at him to speak of “the sin of my ingratitude”. We had seen how Macbeth had slain Duncan’s principle enemy during the battle. Macbeth knelt as he spoke of “The service and loyalty I owe” like a true subject.

After greeting Banquo warmly, Duncan moved onto to other matters. He announced that Malcolm, stood down by the apse and therefore dramatically highlighted when singled out, would be his heir, henceforth to be known as the Prince of Cumberland.

In his aside, Macbeth quizzically stressed “Cumberland?” in his surprised repetition of Malcolm’s new title. He spoke of his “black and deep desires” in a suitably dark tone, but one that was measured, with no hint of murderousness.

Having stood all this while lighting candles, the veiled figure in the apse turned and showed herself to be Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) (1.5). The lights outside the central apse window illuminated the nave as she strode down it, holding in her outstretched hand the folded letter that Macbeth had sent her.

She quoted from it verbatim. As the letter was folded, this demonstrated that she had gone over its contents so many times that she knew them by heart. This was a very effective way of showing her utter engagement with the scheme it suggested.

She only unfolded the letter to read from it directly when it mentioned Cawdor and the promise of kingship. She pointed at the relevant sections, possibly to assure herself that these were real.

Alex Kingston came across as rather forced, with a delivery that had hints of drama school about it. But this might have been clever casting and a deliberate ploy to bring out the egocentric self-dramatisation of her character.

This meant that when she anatomised her husband’s faults, there was a hint of fakery and self-interest, implying that her ambitions were selfish.

Her maid brought news of Duncan’s arrival, and she became excited as she described how “The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements”.

The phrasing “my battlements” reinforced the idea of her egocentricity, which had previously been suggested only by her style of delivery.

She touched her body as she called on the spirits to fill her with “direst cruelty”, gesturing towards her groin area when requesting they “make thick my blood”. She seemed to imagine the horrors she was contemplating physically present before her and retreated momentarily from them.

She picked up two handfuls of mud summoning “thick Night”, establishing a theme of the production, that the mud signified the darkness of evil. This was to conceal the blows of her knife, which she imitated making a stabbing motion using the rolled letter.

All this time she had looked around her as if the “murdering ministers” were about to pop out at her from the shadows.

As she spoke, Macbeth appeared in the apse. He stood and looked at her with a hungry grin and began unbuckling his clothes.

He rushed towards her and they embraced. She described the profound effect his letters had exerted on her, something already hinted at by her having memorised the letter in her hand.

Macbeth continued to loosen his clothes and kiss his wife. When he told her that Duncan planned to leave the following day, she excitedly told him that “O! Never shall sun that morrow see!”

Lady Macbeth told him to “bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue” passionately kissing him on those three places as she mentioned each in turn.

Macbeth was getting excited in his own way. Clearly he had been away from home comforts for a long time and grasped his wife from behind and began lifting her skirt. He interrupted the flow of her excited speech about killing Duncan with “We will speak further” not expressing doubt about the plan but out of his fixation with his own immediate priority.

She playfully teased him and ran off declaring “Leave all the rest to me”, which was both a conclusion to their initial agreement to kill Duncan and a reference to their impending conjugal relations.

The twittering of bird song accompanied the arrival of Duncan and his party outside Macbeth’s castle (1.6). As they stood in the apse, Lady Macbeth hurriedly entered from the other end.

In a very subtle visual joke, her Gentlewoman (Katie West) hastened after her, tying up the back of Lady Macbeth’s dress as she knelt to welcome her royal visitor. The implication was that Lady Macbeth had rushed out without dressing properly after sleeping with her husband.

Macbeth’s reputation as a shagger was hinted at when Duncan brought out the bawdy connotations of “he rides well” when he wondered whether the Thane of Cawdor had arrived back home yet.

Still kneeling, Lady Macbeth offered Duncan a golden necklace, which she placed around his neck. Duncan showed his gratitude by standing behind her and kissing her on the top of her head, before taking her by the hand and asking to be conducted to his host. They both exited at the wall end.

Macbeth appeared in the apse and walked slowly to the centre of the nave pondering the planned assassination (1.7).

He was calm but determined. The only sign of nerves was when he stammered slightly over the phrase “the-e-e assassination”. He gestured upward with his hand, suggesting that he would “jump the life to come” if the murder were consequence-free.

But his thoughts turned towards Duncan’s virtues and his own duty. As a grand dinner was in preparation, he was interrupted by the entry of a servant so that his voice trailed off, his description of his “vaulting ambition” concluding with “falls on the other…”

Lady Macbeth entered from the feast holding a goblet in her hand as other servants passed through the space, adding to the impression of frenetic activity and making their deliberations seem more pressured.

Macbeth calmly told her that he would “proceed no further with this business”. Her response was petulant to the point that, having asked him if his hope were “drunk”, she walked away in a huff saying “such I account thy love”.

She began to mention their now dead child “I have given suck…” upon which Macbeth stretched out his hands, gesturing at her to stay off this disturbing subject. She continued to describe how she would have killed her own child if she had “so sworn”.

Her response to Macbeth’s question “If we should fail?” was to give him caressing assurances that soothed his fears. She emptied her goblet on the ground speaking of the grooms’ “drenched natures”. His admiration was plain in his exhortation to “bring forth men-children only”.

As they exited, one of the witches ran across the apse and placed an object on the ground before scurrying back into the shadows.

Banquo and Fleance (Patrick Neil Doyle) played on recorders before sitting on the platform in the apse (2.1). The darkness of the space meant that Macbeth was not recognised when he approached them. Macbeth gestured at his torch-bearer to hold the flame nearer, so that it illuminated him fully, reassuring Banquo and Fleance that he was indeed “A friend”.

The dark church interior leant itself to a precise staging of the F1 directions that call for a torch. It offered the interesting possibility that this was a duplication of the conditions at the Blackfriars, another religious building converted for the performance of Jacobean drama.

Banquo gestured at the jewel that Duncan had presented to Lady Macbeth. When he mentioned the Weird Sisters, Macbeth rushed out his answers as if signalling that his mind were completely elsewhere, though he lacked credibility when he said “I think not of them”.

Macbeth was left alone and instructed a servant to ring a bell when his drink was ready. A light shone through a cross-shaped slit in the wall, creating the long bright outline of a dagger on the ground. Macbeth wondered at it, approached and tried to clutch it.

He turned to face the apse where the two witches, hidden behind the ends of the audience seating blocks raised another dagger on a twine, which was illuminated by a spot light. Macbeth drew his own dagger and walked towards the dagger floating around the apse saying “I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw”. Indeed the imaginary dagger was now palpable rather than a trick of the light.

The spotlight was turned off and the apse dagger disappeared as Macbeth turned to see another dagger suspended on a horizontally stretched twine, which he had to trust was covered in “gouts of blood”.

His thoughts tended towards “witchcraft” and “pale Hecate” as he walked in a circle holding his dagger murmuring about “Tarquin’s ravishing strides” in what looked like a clichéd imitation of a murderer.

The bell rang and a surprised Macbeth looked up: “I…. go and it is done”. He paused a long time after the first word of this sentence, as if still undecided. Then the decision taken, he hurtled out the rest of the sentence in a rush, as if the speed of its delivery could translate into the speed and ease of the actual act. This was the delivery of the line on 12 July, which was not repeated on 13 July, further evidencing Branagh’s experimentation with the precise details of performance.

He stalked out the side exit and off towards Duncan’s chamber.

Ecstasy

Lady Macbeth was almost beside herself with ecstasy at the success of her part in the plot, which was to drug the grooms “possets” (2.2). She looked around as if having heard a noise, which she dismissed as an owl.

As she spoke at the centre of the nave, the scene in Duncan’s chamber was dramatised in the apse. The king lay on a simple bed with his grooms slumbering just in front of him.

The witches appeared silently at the other end to observe the murder.

Macbeth entered, took the daggers from the grooms and paused. He looked towards to his wife; it was suggested that she was barely audible but not visible to him. When Macbeth called “Who’s there? What, ho!” it was in response to Lady Macbeth talking out loud.

Macbeth walked backwards, fearing the sound of the voice, possibly taking it for another dagger-like hallucination, and bumped into Duncan’s bed, waking him.

As Macbeth stood at the head of the bed, Duncan sat up and reached out his hand to caress Macbeth’s cheek, relieved to see a reliable, trust-worthy face.

Then Macbeth stabbed him in the back. The commotion caused the grooms to half-wake and mutter “Amen” as they prayed in their sleep. Macbeth left Duncan’s now bloodstained body slumped on the bed.

The witches softly intoned “Sleep no more”: this meant that when Macbeth later referred to having heard a voice say this phrase, so had we.

Lady Macbeth feared that the murder had not been carried out until her husband reappeared with the daggers and blood on his hands.

Macbeth looked down at his hands as if they were someone else’s to say “This is a sorry sight”. Lady Macbeth snapped back at him in a way that suggested she was keen to suppress her own doubts.

Macbeth described the detail of the murder. He became gradually more horrified, so that when he spoke of hearing a voice telling him “Sleep no more” there was a hoarseness to his voice as if he were being consumed by both terrifying memories and hallucinations.

His wife’s admonitions to pull himself together had no effect, and her instruction to return the daggers to the grooms went unheeded. Macbeth knelt on the ground and held the daggers out to his sides. Lady Macbeth stood behind him and barked “Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers” at which he raised his hands up allowing his wife to take the blades from him. He brought his hands back down again and placed his palms together across his chest, his eyes closed in silent prayer.

Lady Macbeth exited and then reappeared in the apse to replace the daggers, first smearing them around Duncan’s wounds to bloody them before daubing the crimson witness over the grooms and leaving the daggers with them.

The knocking at the gate appalled Macbeth as he stared in disbelief at his own hands. He exclaimed in an agonised wail “What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes”.

As the knocking continued, Lady Macbeth spoke to him quietly but firmly with the wise recommendation that they should put on night-gowns to avoid suspicion.

The Porter (Daniel Ings) appeared on the balcony atop the wall (2.3). Clearly the worse for wear, he knocked the stopper back into a bottle of drink, a motion that caused it to fall out of his hand to the ground. He immediately retrieved a fresh one.

As he imagined himself the porter of Hell-gate, he asked who was knocking “in the name of Belze-boob”. He dragged some of his equally inebriated drinking companions into view, briefly holding one up as the farmer, sniffing at his armpit to say “You’ll sweat for it”, draping another’s legs over the side of the balcony and slapping his bottom as the equivocator. He squeezed one of the equivocator’s buttocks talking of “both the scales” and the other at “either scale”, sticking his finger between the two at “equivocate to heaven”.

A visual trick was played on the audience as the Porter dipped out of view and then seemed to reappear on the balcony once more, his back to the audience, only to drop down and appear instantly at one of the much lower alcoves. This was achieved by someone standing in for him while he descended to the alcove level.

The Porter stepped into the mud at ground level and flipped open an alcove door as the English tailor flopped backwards headfirst out of an alcove on the other side and was sick. A succession of other figures fell out of the other two alcove doors before being thrust back in again.

He walked down the nave saying “This place is too cold for Hell” as the witches flitted across the width of the nave at various points making chirruping noises. He caught sight of them briefly before announcing “I’ll devil-porter it no more”, suggesting that the world of evil in the form of the witches was already uncomfortably close.

Macduff (Ray Fearon) and Lennox (Steven Cree) met the Porter in the apse. After the comedy of his Hell-gate routine, his jokes about the effects of drinking felt flat, even though he put a bawdy emphasis on “we were carousing till the second COCK” and accompanied it with appropriate hand gestures.

He admitted that drink had given him “the lie in the throat”. He turned to the side and mimed being sick and said “but I requited him for his lie”, implying that he had thrown the drink up again. This mime was repeated when he said that he had “made a shift to cast him”.

Macduff leant back against the side of the trough and decided to be mildly amused by the Porter’s simple-minded performance. But the main impression for this sequence was of Macduff’s forcefulness, a key attribute in his character.

In line with his wife’s suggestion, Macbeth appeared in his night-gown. He was curt and evasive in his replies to Macduff and Lennox, forcing himself to appear normal, particularly when asked by Lennox “Goes the King hence today”, where his reply “He does: he did appoint so” seemed to cause Macbeth some stress.

Macduff quickly returned from the now offstage scene of Duncan’s murder and his immediate shock and horror gave rise to a general alarm. He comforted Lady Macbeth when she pretended not to know what had happened, placing a protective arm on her shoulder and escorting her away from the door to the chamber. In context, this chivalrous gesture made her deception all the more galling.

Macbeth returned and calmly talked his way out of questioning when he revealed that he had killed the grooms suspected of the murder. Such was the general uproar that from the point of view of the rest of the household and visitors, his act did not appear an excessive overreaction.

Malcolm and Donalbain (Elliot Balchin) stood passively and watched events unfold. Their plain night-gowns contrasted with the battledress of the warriors, singling them out as placid and vulnerable. They gave voice to their alienation from events that seemed to be dominated by the others.

Lady Macbeth fainted and was taken away, while the warriors agreed to Macbeth’s suggestion to “put on manly readiness”. Their rushed accord to meet in the hall completely ignored Duncan’s sons, confirming them in their resolve to flee.

John Shrapnel reappeared immediately after as the Old Man and stood together with Ross on the balcony (2.4). They related the supernatural events that had accompanied Duncan’s murder.

Macduff entered below and answered Ross’s questions, explaining that Malcolm and Donalbain had fled, Duncan was to be buried at Colme-kill, and that Macbeth had gone to Scone to be crowned.

As he spoke, Duncan’s funeral cortege entered from the wall end beneath Ross and the Old Man. His coffin was carried the length of the trough, followed by the newly-crowned Macbeths who processed hand in hand slowly and regally with false smiles on their faces, turning towards the audience as if we were their subjects.

Banquo approached them from the apse end and said “Thou hast it now…” voicing his concern that Macbeth had played “most foully” for his new titles. They passed without acknowledging him (3.1).

Light shone in through the rose window, as the Macbeths stood on the platform in the apse and looked out over their court, now acknowledging Banquo’s presence. A messenger whispered in Macbeth’s ear, prompting his question to Banquo “Ride you this afternoon?” as if only just informed of the fact. This gave his subsequent questions a sense of urgency, because Macbeth’s original plan to deal with Banquo had relied on him staying at the castle.

Macbeth tried to pin down Banquo’s precise intentions. His tone of voice was patronising and insincere, suggesting that he was practising regal command rather than already being the master of it, with the result that he sounded like he was talking down to a child rather than his closest friend.

The transparent ulterior motives behind his questions hinted at his insecurity, as did his self-interested denunciation of Malcolm and Donalbain as “our bloody cousins”.

Macbeth stressed the world “tomorrow” twice when talking with Banquo, pronouncing it in a reassuring, comforting tone. This might have been Macbeth overcompensating for the fact that his plans for Banquo meant that he would never see that “tomorrow”. Macbeth’s unusual stress on this word was interesting in the context of its significance in the subsequent “Tomorrow” speech.

Having assured himself that Fleance was riding with Banquo, he handed his sword to his servant and ordered the murderers to be brought to him. He spoke alone: “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”.

His words were a quiet but determined storm. On the 13 July, he spat out the word “nothing” as he became bitter at the idea of making Banquo the “father to a line of kings”. A fearful croak entered his voice as he spoke of his own “fruitless crown”.

Crown

The servant reappeared with the two murderers (Daniel Ings again & Stuart Neal) who knelt in the trough, while Macbeth personally escorted the servant out the side door of the apse, ensuring that he was not around to overhear. That done, he hung his crown on the back of the throne and sat as he asked them if they had “considered of my speeches?”

He beckoned them to approach and they stood either side of him as he sat and gave them a hectoring lecture, comparing them to “greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs…”. He writhed in his seat with his rambling speech hinting at the violent whirlwind of his distressed mind. His explanation, that he could murder Banquo if he wished but could not because of mutual friends “whose loves I may not drop”, was patently insincere.

The murderers agreed to carry out Macbeth’s wishes and he clasped their hands together between his. Having gained their consent, Macbeth immediately rose from his throne and said “Your spirits shine through you”, cutting one of them short and barely glancing back at them, in a desultory tone completely lacking the sincerity that would normally accompany such a compliment.

His insistence that there be “no rubs nor botches in the work” was sufficiently patronising to make it sound like he was asking children to perform a task.

He showed the murderers out and then returned to his throne, affirming “It is concluded”. He curled up, drawing his cloak protectively over himself, rested his head on his shoulder and then closed his eyes. He appeared to be at rest, but his uncomfortable posture suggested otherwise.

Lady Macbeth approached from the other end and looked towards her husband, asking her servant if Banquo had left the court (3.2). She pointed at Macbeth to emphasise the worthlessness of advancement where “desire is got without content”.

Having observed his pitiful state, she addressed him directly, speaking to him of his solitude with only his “sorriest fancies” for company.

Macbeth woke with a start in response to his wife’s words and approached her to explain “We have scorched the snake, not killed it” in a hushed frenzy as if not wanting to be overheard. He became frantic as he claimed that they had “better be with the dead” than endure their present insecurity, and pointed off down the side exit towards where Duncan had once slept.

He held his head in his hands to say “O! Full of scorpions is my mind”. His wife tried to reassure him, but Macbeth had already prepared his own path to contentment.

He began to talk of the “deed of dreadful note” and moved towards the wall where the witches were now leaning over the balcony and stretching their hands downwards.

As he addressed “seeling Night” he picked up a handful of mud and threw it at the wall as he urged the night to “cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond which keeps me pale!” This linked back to his wife’s clutching at mud when referencing darkness and evil.

He spoke of “Night’s black agents” as he stood at the foot of the wall and reached upwards towards the witches, who were still extending their hands downwards. His unconscious attempt at contact with the witches symbolised the pact he had made with the forces of darkness in ordering Banquo’s murder. This sequence would be referred to later in Lady Macbeth’s dream, implying her awareness of the witches’ presence at this point.

He came forward toward his wife and beckoned with his hand saying “So, pr’ythee, go with me”, which in context looked like an invitation to join him in his demonic pact.

The three murderers (3rd was Jordan Dean) gathered to kill Banquo and Fleance (3.3). They lurked at the sides of the trough as the pair passed between them and then jumped on them. The witches crowded together in the central alcove to observe. They twitched and writhed with excitement as they watched the killing.

Banquo fought bravely but was stabbed in the back and thrust against the side of the trough. Fleance escaped as Banquo exhorted him to fly. The witches, now descended to ground level, cried “fly, fly, fly” in manic ecstasy.

They then danced with the murderers. Each witch took a sword from one of the assassins, freeing both his hands and enabling him to hoist the witch aloft and put her down in a surprisingly balletic move. This cemented the witches at the centre of the villainy.

The witches moved along the nave to the apse. One of them playfully dropped a cloth onto one of the numerous apse candles, extinguishing it. As the scene progressed, the witches gradually put out all the candles. They sat in a heap in the apse to watch the next scene

A table consisting of two halves was placed in the centre of the trough (3.4). Macbeth welcomed the dinner guests who sat around it, with Lady Macbeth sitting at the apse end, and then went to the wall end to speak with the murderer.

Hearing that Fleance had escaped, he turned and looked away to exclaim “Then comes my fit again”. Macbeth had so far displayed enough fitful behaviour for this to be convincing.

Lady Macbeth rose from her seat and walked towards Macbeth to complain that “You do not give the cheer”.

Once she had vacated her seat, Banquo walked from the apse towards the table. The guests slid the two sides of the table top apart enabling him to walk through it, a rough and ready approximation of a ghost’s ability to pass through solid objects. He sat at the end of the table nearest to Macbeth with his back turned to him.

Lady Macbeth invited her husband to take his seat, but he protested that it was occupied. Banquo turned round and was spotlit, causing Macbeth such great shock that he gasped and threw away his drink in panic as he reeled backwards crying “Which of you have done this?”

Lady Macbeth tried to assuage the surprised dinner guests, but concluded by darting a taunt at her husband “Are you a man?” He fired back an indignant “Ay, and a bold one…”.

Banquo rose from his chair, the tabletop parted again and he walked through the table back to the apse end.

Macbeth followed, but round the side of the table, pointing at the vision as he expressed his horror that graves “send those that we bury, back”.

He continued to fulminate about the return of the dead until Lady Macbeth reminded him of his duty to his guests. Macbeth composed himself and took his seat where Banquo had originally sat and nervously proposed a toast to “Banquo, whom we miss”.

At this point Banquo appeared in spotlight on the balcony. Even though Macbeth was facing away from his position towards the apse, he jolted in shock and turned round to confront the second appearance of the vision.

Macbeth recoiled again, climbing backwards on to the table. He stood and shouted at Banquo’s ghost, which disappeared instantly. The fact that the ghost had disappeared to order, heartened Macbeth sufficiently to consider himself in control. But the guests had already scattered from the table, thinking him insane, and Lady Macbeth looked at him in tears, telling him he had “displaced the mirth”.

He climbed down from the table at the apse end and, with a haunted look, said “It will have blood, they say…”. But his fear soon turned into chilled aggression as he noted Macduff’s absence from the dinner. Lady Macbeth cleaned the table, as if this would make a difference.

Macbeth said he would visit the Weird Sisters again, the inevitability of which was underlined by their watching presence a few metres away in the apse.

After saying that he was so far “stepped in blood” he might as well continue, he put his head down on the table and cried about the “Strange things I have in head”. Lady Macbeth reacted to his pitiful whining with mothering attention, stroking him and telling him he needed to sleep. He stood and rested his head on the side of the trough, crying indistinctly about his “initiate fear” before both retired to bed.

This closing sequence in the scene really brought home the fragility and rawness of Macbeth’s state of mind. He was close to edge.

Scenes 3.5 and 3.6 were cut so that the performance continued with an edited version of 4.1.

The witches stood in the apse and spoke the first three lines of 4.1 from “Thrice the brindled cat have mewed” to “’Tis time, ‘tis time.” The Hecate sequence was cut with the text continuing at line 44 “By the pricking of my thumbs…” at which point Macbeth appeared walking towards them slowly with his sword aloft ready to strike.

Macbeth agreed he would rather hear the answers to his questions from the witches’ masters. They ran forward crying “Bubble, bubble toil and trouble” (replacing the “sow’s blood” lines) as behind them a line of flame roared up from the apse. A large sheet with a white pentangle was positioned in front of it, under which the shapes of bodies writhed and contorted. A crowned head still covered by the sheet projected upwards giving height to the apparition.

The inside of the church was still very hot and the radiant heat from the gas jets only added to the temperature, particularly for those in the apse half of the space.

The first two apparitions spoke as men pulled themselves out from the billowing sheet lying on their backs face upwards to address Macbeth, as the witches cackled and contorted around his feet.

Ray Fearon appeared from under the sheet to warn Macbeth about Macduff. Another actor told him that “none of woman born” could harm him. The third saw the voices deliver the Birnam Wood prophecy after Macbeth addressed the crowned head.

Macbeth was pleased with this so far, but then pointed his sword at the witches demanding to know whether Banquo’s descendants would rule.

The “show of eight kings” saw Banquo emerge from under the sheet to Macbeth’s great shock and dismay, followed by a series of crowned figures that walked past Macbeth, the last one carrying a small mirror, while Banquo smiled and pointed at them to Macbeth’s horror. The witches danced around the kings, who hoisted the witches aloft in a repeat of the balletic move performed by Banquo’s murderers.

Macbeth asked if all this were real. The 1st Witch replied in a staccato, childish, sarcastic voice, twitching and twittering so that her question “but why stands Macbeth thus amazedly?” bordered on the contemptuous, as did her mocking reference to him as “this great King”. Her parting shot “our duties did his welcome pay” conveyed the idea that he had got what he asked for and thoroughly deserved, after which all three ran away cackling.

Lennox had not seen the witches and Macbeth bitterly cursed them “Infected be the air whereon they ride”. On hearing that Macduff had fled to England there was a grim determination in Macbeth’s voice as he resolved to take revenge.

Flight

Ross brought Lady Macduff (Rosalie Craig) the news of her husband’s flight (4.2). Her reactions showed her to be the kind of feminine but sharp-edged fighter that a warrior like Macduff would chose as a wife.

Her conversation with her son (Harry Polden) lasted just long enough for the warning of imminent danger brought by the Messenger (Cody Green) to be alarming.

When the murderers appeared asking for her husband, Lady Macduff held her son close in front of her, wrapping protective arms around him. But he broke free and charged at them with his dagger. Initially one of the murderers simply picked him up and swung him around, but they then stabbed him in the back while his mother struggled to defend him. One of the murderers held her from behind as she screamed “murder!” The murderer silenced her by snapping her neck. He caught her limp body as she fell forward and carried her away.

The long scene between Malcolm and Macduff revealed Malcolm to be determined but also angry about possible plots against him (4.3). Macduff also showed the force of his anger as his frustration at Malcolm intensified.

Fearon and Vlahos really brought out the terse conflict of their first exchanges, highlighting the contradiction between Malcolm’s stated desire to weep and Macduff’s obvious urge to fight.

Malcolm’s ploy of self-deprecation was convincing and betrayed no sign of being a subterfuge. Thrusting an imaginary woman down onto his groin, Malcolm spoke of the “cistern of my lust”. Macduff, completely taken in by his sincerity, placed a hand on his shoulder and walked next to him, consoling him that “Boundless intemperance” would be no obstacle to ruling Scotland.

But Malcolm slipped from under Macduff’s comforting hand to protest that he would steal the wealth of his nobles. Macduff again took him in hand to say that the country had wealth enough to satisfy “this avarice”.

Once more Malcolm turned away and freed himself from Macduff’s mollifying hold, saying that his rule would bring anarchy, before crouching at the side of the trough.

Macduff’s frustration exploded into anger as he denounced Malcolm as “unfit to live”, grabbing him by his jerkin and dragging him to his feet, forcefully reminding him of the virtues of his father and mother.

Malcolm’s reversal after this outburst showed no sign of his devious deception. He knelt on both knees in the mud to “abjure the taints and blames I laid upon myself”. He admitted that he was still a virgin and not the corrupt person he had painted himself.

The sequence with the English doctor was cut, so that Ross entered with news from Scotland.

Ross found it difficult to conceal the truth from Macduff and faced away from him when equivocating that his family were “well at peace, when I did leave ‘em”. He only turned to face the pair when exhorting Malcolm to return to Scotland and fight. This hinted that his speech here was a deliberate change of subject to avoid further talk with Macduff.

Ross eventually hinted that he had bad news, which Macduff guessed at. Now it was Macduff’s turn to face the wall with his back to the others, as Ross told him of the murder of his wife and children. Macduff looked over his shoulder tearfully seeking confirmation of the precise details.

Malcolm sought to assuage Macduff by proposing revenge on Macbeth, at which Macduff turned fully round to snarl “He has no children”.

Macduff paced the length of the nave to the apse trying to make sense of the terrible news about his “pretty chickens, and their dam”. Once there he responded to Malcolm’s inappropriate “Dispute it like a man”, by growling that he must first “feel it like a man”.

Macduff collapsed to his knees as he vented his self-disgust, bent forward with his head close to the ground, his pitiful sobbing moans punctuated by words of self-admonition. He repeatedly howled in a disconcerting wail that combined the force of a man with the helplessness of a child.

Macduff had always seemed a pillar of strength, which made the dismal spectacle of his emotional collapse all the more disturbing. But the extremity of his despair fed the extremity of his desire for revenge. Macduff had shown foresight in telling Malcolm that he had to feel his grief first before acting against its author, for now the fury of his vow to seek out “this fiend of Scotland” was as chilling in its force as his sobs had been pitiful in their abjectness.

The Doctor (Benny Young) and Gentlewoman stood in the mud and discussed Lady Macbeth’s fragile mental state (5.1).

She appeared walking across the balcony above the wall carrying a candle which she placed on a high shelf above her, before starting on her distracted sleep-talk.

She tried to wash the spot from her hand by holding it out palm upward and rubbing it mechanically with the palm of her other hand. As she relived the past, her movements became jerky and erratic, particularly when she twisted her neck replaying the way in which Lady Macduff had been killed saying “The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?”

She cried in despair that “this little hand” would not be sweetened.

She spoke “Wash your hands, put on your night-gown; look not so pale” as a three-part drill, accompanying each part with a specific movement in which she washed, dressed and moved her hand across her forehead.

Urging “to bed, to bed”, she held her hand at her heart when saying “there’s a knocking at the gate”. Most interestingly, this final sequence, which is normally an imagined conversation with her husband, was interrupted as she appeared to be possessed by a demonic force. She croaked “Give me your hand” with the deep voice of a fiend as she reached downwards. She concluded by holding her hand up in imitation of her husband’s upward reach towards the witches.

This particular phrase was a clear reference back to Macbeth’s “seeling Night” speech in which he had grasped upwards towards the witches, who were straining to reach down to him. Lady Macbeth had here voiced one or more of the witches who had attempted to take Macbeth’s hand.

The Scottish army gathered in the mud preparing to meet the forces coming from England near Birnam Wood (5.2).

Macbeth strode down the nave followed by his attendants as he ordered them not to bring him further reports (5.3). He was resigned, bitter and lacking any outward fury so that his brave words made him almost convincing as a man in control of his destiny.

He became angered at the news of the advancing English army, so that when he said he was “sick at heart” his further ruminations betrayed his bitterness. The idea of having an old age with “troops of friends” was spoken as if the concept were ridiculous.

Instead he thought he would only have “curs-es”, the word drawn out for emphasis and “mouth-honour” pointing at his two servants, effectively accusing them of insincerity.

His resolution to “fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked” was resolute but downhearted as if he knew inwardly that this fatal outcome was inevitable.

He leant against the side of the trough to ask the Doctor how his patient, Lady Macbeth, was faring. The Doctor’s unhelpful response provoked Macbeth’s resigned and bitter “Throw physic to the dogs…”.

He put on his protective padded jerkin serving as “armour”, but soon after took it off, which was possibly motivated by his concluding conviction that he could not be harmed (terms & conditions apply).

The combined English and Scottish force reached Dunsinane and resolved to cut down trees from Birnam Wood (5.4). The actual hewing was not shown.

Macbeth walked purposefully down the trough, confident of his castle’s impregnability (5.5). The voice of Lady Macbeth crying out was heard offstage, specifically her single voice and not “the cry of women”. It was very obviously the sound of her killing herself. Seyton (John Shrapnel again) returned to confirm that she was dead.

Tomorrow

Macbeth sounded tired at “She should have died hereafter”. He spoke of “Tomorrow,…” and then sped up the further two repetitions of the word “and tomorrow, and tomorrow” highlighting the rapidity of time rushing forward, which was at odds with his subsequent reference to time’s “petty pace”.

He crumpled and began to cry at “Out, out brief candle”. Branagh portrayed Macbeth with psychological realism, reacting in the moment as a grieving husband rather than presenting him as an introspective armchair philosopher. This phrase was therefore clearly a direct reference to her rather than rumination on life in general.

This specific grief at his wife’s death triggered a deeper psychic collapse. After composing himself briefly to describe life as a “walking shadow” strutting upon the stage, he broke down again, consumed by self-loathing as he grizzled that its story was “told by an idiot”. His tearful emphasis on “idiot” made it plain that he considered himself one.

He bent over facing the ground crying about the tale’s “sound and fury” with dribble running out of his mouth, before whispering with chilling, bitter nihilism that it all signified “Nothing”. The word was whispered after a slight pause as if this vocal diminution conveyed the insignificance to which the word referred.

The overall effect was devastating. The way in which Macbeth was possessed and contorted by his passions made the “Tomorrow” speech almost unrecognisable. Instead of being delivered as a philosophical musing, Macbeth was crying and vomiting his own soul out of his body. It marked the point at which Branagh truly made the role his own.

In that respect it was analogous to Macduff’s tearful passion about the deaths of his wife and children, except that Macbeth’s breakdown also marked the disintegration of his already fragile psyche, tortured by guilt and haunted by visions.

He recovered sufficiently to address the messenger, displaying some shame at his less than composed state of mind. Hearing that Birnam Wood appeared to be moving towards the castle, Macbeth reacted “Liar, and slave!” with the kind of quiet disbelief that suggested he was still held in some kind of trance resulting from the total breakdown he had undergone mere seconds before.

He stirred himself and ordered his troops into battle. But he certainly did seem “aweary of the sun”. His state of mind at this point was thoroughly convincing because we had just seen even greater depths to his misery.

The army advanced down the trough carrying wicker shields made from the trees of Birnam Wood. One rank stood with their shields held in front of them, then the second passed between the gaps in the shields to throw down another defensive wall further on, the move repeated like an advancing Roman army. They doubled back on themselves carrying their shields at their sides so that they obscured the soldiers from view.

The army was instructed to throw down its shields and Macduff ordered the troops to attack. They banged their swords on their shields and charged. Some went to stand with their shields in the apse.

Macbeth appeared in the apse in full battle array and challenged Young Siward (Harry Lister Smith) (5.7). Despite knowing that the witches had equivocated with him, he still trusted in his invincibility. He seemed confident that the young soldier would be scared to hear his name. He fought with him for a short while before running him through with his sword, thrusting it in twice at the mention of swords and weapons in his line “But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn”. The frontal injuries to Young Siward concurred with the report of his death in 5.9.

Macduff came looking for Macbeth, who had moved on. He saw Young Siward lying in the mud and inspected the dead body saying “There thou shouldst be”, expressing his desire that Macbeth should be a slaughtered body in the mire of the battlefield.

Siward (David Annen) met with Malcolm, whom he encouraged to enter Macbeth’s castle.

Macbeth stalked down the traverse from the apse end (5.8). Macduff followed in the same direction shortly afterwards and, in a voice smoking with fury, ordered him to turn. The pair fought furiously with two swords apiece in the intense heat. Macbeth knocked one of Macduff’s swords from his hand. After a long struggle, Macbeth battled Macduff to the ground and stood poised to finish him off. He pointed out that Macduff’s struggle was in vain because he “must not yield to one of woman born”.

Macduff roused his spirits to inform Macbeth that he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”, on hearing which Macbeth faltered and sloped away to one side. He limped with effort towards the wall and away from Macduff, who now stood and taunted Macbeth with the prospect of capture and display. Macbeth picked up Macduff’s dropped sword from the ground, retrieved a small circular shield, and bade Macduff, now also bearing a shield, fight on.

As swords clashed once more, the pair battled their way offstage by a side exit with no victory for either of them in sight.

Malcolm and his followers gathered in the trough (5.9). Malcolm noted that Macduff and Young Siward were still missing. In the context of the unresolved battle between Macduff and Macbeth, this raised the tension even for those familiar with the outcome, and also increased the force of the final reveal of the victor.

Ross told Siward that his son had died in battle, noting that he had his hurts “on the front” as had been the case when Macbeth had killed him.

The victor emerged. Macduff stood with Macbeth’s head in a sack, which he contemptuously hurled against the wall. The heavy dead thud was a proxy for the fatal blow and death rattle with which Macbeths usually die in performance.

Macduff hailed Malcolm as King of Scotland, a cry picked up by those present, who knelt before the new monarch. Malcolm walked among his kneeling subjects and invited his new earls to see him crowned at Scone. The performance ended with Malcolm being surrounded by the soldiers, who raised their swords and cried “Hail, King of Scotland!” once more, as Malcolm, in the centre of the huddle, lifted his own sword hilt upwards into the air.

Conclusions

The production was an intense, enveloping experience. The church interior with its mud-filled traverse, dominated by two long ranks of benches, was dark and fiercely, uncomfortably, hot.

The originality and extremity of the staging, and the overwhelming sensory impressions it generated, were so disorienting that it was difficult to comment on the performance after just one viewing.

The return of Kenneth Branagh to the Shakespearean stage was a mixed blessing. It was difficult to get past his enormous global celebrity status to the character he was presenting.

His good-guy persona meant it was difficult for Branagh to make Macbeth sufficiently vile. But he was helped in this by the extreme, righteous anger of Ray Fearon’s Macduff. The strength of Macduff’s desire for revenge only made sense if engendered by a truly reprehensible foe.

The decision to show, not tell, scene 1.2 was radical and very successful. It portrayed not just the violence of battle, but more importantly the close cooperative bond between Macbeth and Duncan which was to be torn apart by the former’s murderous ambition.

There was a suggestion that the mud covering the performance trough served as an ever-present metaphor for evil. But this did not come across in performance. There were only two brief uses of the mud that linked it to darkness.

On a practical level, however, the mud made walking difficult so that simple movements became laboured. This added a thin veneer of tension. The mud also silenced the sound of footsteps lending the production an eerie quietness.

The abiding memory was undoubtedly Branagh’s rendition of the “Tomorrow” speech. It was epic in its force to the point of making these familiar words almost unrecognisable.

It would be very gratifying if this production’s lasting legacy were to make it compulsory for future Macbeths to deliver this speech as a painful and emotionally realistic reaction to the death of Lady Macbeth rather than a slightly gloomy philosophical meditation.

St Peter's Ancoats St Peter's Ancoats

After the 13 July performanceSurplus mud

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