Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet

RADA Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London 18 & 20 September 2017

The theatre

The auditorium of the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre was reconfigured to create a thrust stage of bare wooden planks level with the first two rows of stalls seats, which were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the thrust. The total capacity of the stalls and gallery was 183 seats.

The main stage area was bare apart from the lattice uprights of the lighting rig at each side and a plain backdrop for projections. The only set was a wall with doors and windows flown in for scenes in palace interiors. This was augmented by a desk, sofa and chairs as required.

There were four entrances to the performance space: two at the sides of the main stage through black curtaining and two at the top of the thrust through seating aisles.

Initial interior scenes featured a large square carpet at the end of the thrust. This was decorated with the royal Danish crest and the border was edged with a phrase in Danish set in capitals GØDE MÆND MÅ DØ MEN DØDEN KAN IKKE DRÆBE DERES NAVNE – in English: Good men must die but death cannot kill their names. This is a Danish version of a supposed Danish proverb but which only seems to exist in English.

Who’s there?

When the audience entered the theatre, the stage was empty apart from a low upright piano and its accompanying wooden chair in the centre of the thrust.

The first utterances of the production were Hamlet’s intermittent sighs and groans which could be faintly heard (at least by those nearest the stage) deep offstage while the house lights were still on before the performance formally began.

The lights dimmed allowing Hamlet to approach and seat himself at the piano. When he was spotlit for the start of the performance, he was bent slightly over the closed keyboard, the palms of his hands resting on the upward slope of the keyboard cover. This contorted posture was held briefly, signalling his tension, before he relaxed, opened the keyboard and began to play and sing “And will he not come again?”

The slow mournful tapping out of the tune and Hamlet’s pained recitation of the song paused momentarily after the word “beard” as he was overcome with by emotion. Once finished, he immediately rose and slunk away up left thrust exit, as stage hands prepared the set for the next scene.

This opening, dispensing with all of 1.1, was reminiscent of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, which similarly foregrounded its star turn by having him engage in solitary musical melancholy. In Cumberbatch’s case he sat listening to a record on a portable gramophone whilst browsing a photo album. Star Hamlets seem to require immediate view of the actor, contrary to the play’s structure which first creates a ghost mystery then introduces the main character as bitter and sarcastic.

1.2

The piano and chair were removed, the square carpet was laid down, and a desk with the Danish crest on its front and accompanying chair placed in front of the flown-in palace interior wall.

As Claudius’s initial speech was staged as a television broadcast, the presence of stage crew arranging the space looked like part of the action.

Claudius sat at the desk and a crew member counted him down 3,2,1 silently with her fingers. No camera or other crew were visible so that he directly addressed the audience. The rest of the court, but significantly not Hamlet, waited among the audience in the two thrust entrances.

He was quite composed as began his reflections on the death of King Hamlet, but paused for several seconds after “… contracted in one brow of woe,/Yet…” looking down at the desk as if broaching the subject had opened a still festering emotional wound, before recomposing himself and continuing on to the topic of his recent marriage.

His mendaciously insincere regret for his brother’s death, orchestrated for consumption by a large television audience, contrasted neatly with the sincerity of Hamlet’s immediately preceding solitary and private grief.

The text was slightly edited to remove the reference to “auspicious” and “dropping” eyes. Elsewhere, however, the production did not habitually edit to remove ‘difficult’ language, containing a number of opaque phrases not commonly heard in contemporary performances.

Gertrude appeared at his side and took his hand when he mentioned her, compounding the impression that this was a stage-managed piece of political theatre for public consumption.

The text was reworked so that Claudius mentioned Fortinbras’s claims against Denmark and explained that he was sending a letter to the king of Norway to put a stop to them.

He spoke of “… those lands/Lost… To our most valiant brother. [edit] We have here writ/To Norway (signed and showed signed letter to camera)… to suppress/His further gait herein. So much for him.” The closing sentence was spoken with an air of confident finality.

Claudius signalled the end of the transmission, or possibly recording, by making a cut gesture across his throat with his hand.

The broadcast over, the rest of the court minus Hamlet came forward chanting “Claudius! Claudius! Claudius!”

The new king was very pleased with himself and jokingly asked Laertes what he desired. Laertes was dressed down unlike the other courtiers and was very soft-spoken.

Polonius was middle-aged, tall and lean. The distinguishing feature of his character was that he evidently considered himself to be funny, but was in fact dreadfully unfunny: very much the “foolish prating knave” of Hamlet’s caricature, rather than the “good old man” of Gertrude’s description.

As previously mentioned, Hamlet was absent for this entire sequence, unlike productions that follow the text and position him onstage as a silent, bitter observer, only attending out of duty.

Hamlet strode confidently through the back wall right side door, closed it behind him and stood in front of it as Claudius first addressed him. This meant that it was Hamlet who seized Claudius’s attention by his entry rather than Claudius choosing to pay attention to an already present Hamlet.

His “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was strong and forceful. It was more a confident statement than a bitter, sarcastic retort resulting from pent-up frustration at previous silence.

This initial presentation of his character, not only contrasted with our first view of him, but effectively suppressed it. Whatever grief he might have felt in private, Hamlet operated at this level of strength when dealing with others.

Although Claudius mentioned his wedding to Gertrude, the scene was not marked by a pronounced wedding atmosphere. This meant that Hamlet’s black coat did not distinguish him sartorially from the rest of the court.

Gertrude attempted to raise his mood, but he responded by moving resolutely forward, explaining with clarity and precision that “I know not ‘seems’ etc.”

Claudius drew nearer to Hamlet combining a long lecture with an attempt at tactile friendliness. But his nephew was more than unmoved by his attentions.

When Claudius expressed the desire that he should “think of us/As of a father” Hamlet stood his ground and spat out a dismissive “pah!”

Hamlet only agreed to stay after Gertrude’s second intervention. He took her by the hands and stressed “obey *you*, madam” to emphasise that he would not do anything at Claudius’s entreaty.

She embraced him and they held hands, but this moment of closeness was cut short as Gertrude was escorted away by Claudius who asserted “Madam, come”. Hamlet tried to maintain hand contact, which lingered for a while as she moved further away, but distance eventually obliged her to let go. This loss of finger contact was echoed in the play’s closing sequence in which such contact was touchingly regained.

Hamlet was left alone. Thrown into spotlight, with an accompanying sound effect to mark the transition, he began his “too too solid flesh” soliloquy.

He began leant against the desk, then moved around the thrust addressing the audience with a strong, firm and passionate statement of his situation.

Having told us “I must hold my tongue” he set off briskly through the left thrust exit but was recalled just in time by Horatia’s greeting “Hail to your lordship” her swift entry catching him just as he disappeared.

The recasting of Horatio as a female Horatia would prove to be the production’s most interesting and dramatically rewarding feature.

Hamlet held her close with his arms around her waist as he welcomed her. This immediately established them as something more than just good friends.

Horatia, Marcella and Bernarda had come to tell Hamlet about the (unstaged) sighting of his father’s ghost. But before they could do so, Hamlet looked away from them and out into the audience, claiming that he had already seen his father in his mind’s eye.

He took a keen interest in their report of the ghost’s appearance. The text was cut to remove anachronistic references to armour. They all agreed to meet that night to try to spot it again.

1.3

The encounter between France-bound Laertes and his sister Ophelia was marked by the soft-spoken poetical tones of her brother’s admonishments. His sweet demeanour towards her here would make his subsequent violent actions seem all the more out of character. This Laertes was not a gruff combative young man easily given to violence.

Like many modern Ophelias, she rolled her eyes at her brother’s warning to guard her “chaste treasure”.

She charged him in return with being a “reckless libertine” at which point Laertes took a small condom packet from his pocket, assuring her “Fear me not”. When his father entered this joke was extended as Polonius presented him with huge box of condoms.

Polonius read his precepts aloud from sheets of paper handed to him by an assistant, which emphasised their status as “old saws”. After reading from each one he dramatically threw the sheet over his shoulder onto the floor. But not the last one “to thine own self be true” which instead of discarding, he carefully folded and presented to Laertes, underlining its importance.

The father’s lecture to his “green girl” daughter saw him again come close to overstepping the border between buffoon and clown.

1.4

Hamlet, Horatia and Marcella met to watch for the ghost. This scene was set not on any outside platform but in the same interior space as the previous scenes. Consequently, the initial remarks about the cold were cut.

They entered at the back of the stage by the windowed wall, proceeded into the thrust and turned to face the wall and desk. The besuited and haggard figure of the ghost appeared in the centre doorway, beckoning Hamlet to follow him.

Hamlet had his dagger drawn and pointed it at the ghost, demanding whether it was “King? father? [then even more quizzically] royal Dane?” He knelt before the desk, driving the point of his dagger down onto its surface, holding it in position with both hands on the hilt, as he bowed his head and demanded an explanation for this strange apparition.

Horatia and Bernarda tried to restrain Hamlet from following the ghost. His threat “I’ll make a ghost of *her* that stops me” was notable – primarily because it brought home that his companions were both women and only secondarily for its replacement of “lets” by “stops”.

Hamlet rushed out the doorway. Marcella paused in the doorway to decry that there was something “rotten” in the state of Denmark before joining the others in pursuit.

1.5

The lights came up on the ghost sat at the desk. He placed a pile of two books on it. He was confronted by Hamlet who entered through the thrust entrance and stood to hear the ghost’s explanation of how he had been killed.

Talking while sat at this desk directly echoed Claudius’s broadcast, but with the important distinction that the ghost was being truthful rather than engaging in propaganda.

The ghost’s voice was a sonorous rasp whose tormented tones matched the horror of his descriptions.

Learning that his father had been murdered, Hamlet crouched on spread knees digging his long dagger point into the ground in front of him, vowing that he would “sweep to my revenge”.

Sensing Hamlet’s eagerness, the ghost rose from the desk congratulating him “I find thee apt” and approached his son. He walked with a pronounced limp as he described the effect of the poison on his body, before turning round and exiting out the back wall door.

Hamlet fell face forward onto the ground before turning to lie on his back, banging his fists on the ground as he fired himself with resolution to avenge his father’s murder.

He sat upright as he thought out loud of his mother as a “pernicious woman”, and exuded a sense of satisfaction as he gazed at the audience to announce “So, uncle, there you are”.

Horatio and Marcella caught up with him. After explaining that the ghost was honest, Hamlet chattered manically and shook hands with them, provoking Horatia’s comment on his “wild and whirling words”.

The prince was excited and jolly until Horatia suggested there was no offence. In an abrupt change of mood, Hamlet slammed his dagger down onto the desk with a loud bang as he exclaimed “Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatia”.

A vow of silence was required of Horatia and Marcella. The ghost’s voice under the floor also enjoined them to swear. Hearing this deep vibrating utterance, Hamlet took up the carpet and examined its underside, then actually crawled underneath the carpet, emerging at the other side to wear it like a cape. It was in this guise that Hamlet responded to Horatia’s characterisation of the situation as “wondrous strange” by telling her “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”.

In another violent gesture, Hamlet stabbed his dagger into the books that the ghost had left on the desk and encouraged them all to place their hands on its hilt to vow their silence, as the ghost’s deep voice once more sounded from underground.

2.1

The Reynaldo sequence was cut, so that the scene began with Ophelia rushing through the centre door holding a letter from Hamlet, telling Polonius how the prince had frightened her.

Ophelia’s reference to Hamlet’s doublet was kept, despite the anachronism.

Polonius was again comically upbeat in diagnosing Hamlet’s condition as the pangs of love.

2.2

A sofa was placed in the centre of the thrust, faced by two armchairs, to provide a cosy setting for Claudius and Gertrude to welcome Rosacrantz and Guildastern and brief them on their mission.

The text implies that Claudius confuses the identities of Hamlet’s two pals at the end of the sequence and is corrected by Gertrude. This production went one step further by having him get their names mixed up twice.

The king’s opening greeting to the pair as they each occupied an armchair “Welcome, dear Rosacrantz and Guildastern” was directed to each individual, but incorrectly. Hamlet’s friends immediately corrected Claudius, and his voice faded to a confused silence before he could finish pronouncing “Guildastern”. Then when they parted, he compounded his previous error by yet again getting their names the wrong way round. As his voice faltered in recognition of his error, Gertrude corrected him. The repetition of this gag reinforced the text’s hint that Claudius was in the habit of making this particular mistake.

The regendering of Rosacrantz and Guildastern worked together with the retention of an original wording in the text to create an interesting new meaning in performance.

The queen said to them: “And sure I am *two men* there is not living/To whom he more adheres”. This remark made the female versions of the original male characters even more privileged friends of Hamlet.

With Rosacrantz and Guildastern sent off to work, Polonius brought news of the return of the ambassadors from Norway. These characters did not appear, so the announcement was for information purposes only.

Polonius’s “brevity” speech included much pointing and was clownish more than buffoonish. This detracted from his likability and so diminished the shock of his subsequent killing.

He sat Ophelia down in an armchair while he read from the letter sent to her by the prince. This, like Hamlet’s other letters, bore an H symbol in the letterhead. Polonius turned the letter to show it to the king and queen, pointing at the word “bosom” as if it required particular attention.

Polonius suggested “loosing” Ophelia to Hamlet in order to observe his behaviour.

A more immediate opportunity to see the prince in action suddenly arose when Hamlet appeared through the back window door. The king and queen left Polonius to deal with the situation, and affecting an air of casual disregard, Polonius turned to face away from the doorway.

The audience could see Hamlet’s changed appearance straightaway as he entered: his face was painted with patches of black and white, and a Danish flag was draped loosely over his shoulders.

Polonius’s composure soon crumpled when he turned to face the prince. His greeting was reworked so that it was spoken: “How does my… good lord! Hamlet?” to underscore the bizarre nature of prince’s appearance.

In his fitful madman act, Hamlet looked Polonius up and down and called him a fishmonger. He described the sun as “a god kissing carrion”. The trigger word “conception” prompting him to lean forward onto the sofa and hump it.

A copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of the author’s experience of depression, contained the “words, words, words” that Hamlet perused as he seated himself on the sofa next to Polonius.

The books “slanders” were mentioned but the slightly archaic list of slanders was skipped, enabling a more potent effect to be obtained from Hamlet’s response to Polonius leave-taking. After shifting closer to Polonius on the sofa and mimicking his movements such as crossing his legs, Polonius said “I will take my leave of you”.

Hamlet’s riposte “You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal” was followed by a triple repetition of “Except my life”, each iteration spoken in a deliberately distinct tone of voice.

“Except my life” was first pronounced flatly, then jokingly accompanied by manic laughter, and lastly with Hamlet distraught and tearful, his head sinking into his hands. He continued to bury his head in his hands as the bewildered Polonius left him.

Rosacrantz and Guildastern, having been warned of the change in Hamlet’s mood, came equipped to lighten it. The prince’s sullenness evaporated on seeing them, and when their portable radio began to play Kendrick Lamar’s i he joined in their dancing, lifting Rosacrantz off the ground, holding her horizontally behind his back and spinning her round. This sequence replaced the somewhat laboured banter of the original text and made for a more forceful and lively encounter based on music rather than wordplay.

The physical expression of their jollity continued. They threw sofa cushions at each other as Hamlet told them that Denmark was a prison, and the banter moved on to the subject of his ambition.

The mood became somewhat subdued when he accused the pair of being sent for, which they admitted. But then he dialled down the mood completely when telling them how he had lost all his mirth.

This sequence had more impact and its tone was darker coming so soon after the previous musical jollity. With hindsight it was possible ask how he could have lost all his mirth, given how much fun he appeared to be having with his friends when he first met them.

His caveat “Nor woman neither” took on a different meaning when said in wholly female company.

The two women responded to his changed mood with compassion and attention. Hamlet sat on the desk while Rosacrantz and Guildastern took tissues and wiped the paint from his face as they told him about the impending arrival of the players.

Polonius also heralded the players’ arrival in his own inimitable style. At first he walked in backwards with one eye on the offstage troupe with a cheery “Well be with you, gentlemen” but fell backwards over an armchair. He departed, returning shortly afterwards with a more extensive introduction. Itemising the genres in which the players excelled, he stressed the last syllable in “pastorAL” lending an affected air to his already strained introduction.

The company consisted of only two actors, so that elaborate greetings of individuals were unnecessary, allowing Hamlet to get straight down to his version of the speech by Pyrrhus.

Hamlet responded aggressively to Polonius’s interruptions. When the latter complimented him on his speech being “Well spoken” Hamlet shushed him. He continued to praise his “good accent” at which point the prince gestured to him to be quiet with the effect that Polonius’s voice trailed away to nothing before he could finish his line.

Nevertheless, he continued to interrupt after the First Player picked up where Hamlet left off.

His complaint that the player’s speech was “too long” was met with Hamlet’s sarcastic remark about it going to the barbers.

But when Polonius’s echoed Hamlet’s repetition of the phrase “mobled queen” the prince’s patience snapped and he silenced Polonius with a threatening fist gesture.

The First Player writhed on the ground with the emotion of playing the distraught Hecuba.

Hamlet’s “Now I am alone” soliloquy saw him spotlit as he spoke to the audience of his self-loathing in the face of the actor’s passionate portrayal of Priam’s wife.

He kicked the back of the sofa as he railed against the “kindless villain”, but in so doing he hurt his foot and hobbled in pain, regretting his rash intemperate action. Duly chastened by this discomfort, he knew he had become “an ass” whose “most brave” outburst had backfired.

He plumped and rearranged the cushions on the sofa, which seemed to suggest to him the idea of people “sitting at a play”, leading him in turn to the ruse of using the forthcoming performance to “catch the conscience of the king”.

3.1

After Rosacrantz and Guildastern had informed Claudius about the upcoming play, the king moved on to the serious business of setting Ophelia as bait in a trap for Hamlet. She was made to sit on a chair facing away towards the left corner of the thrust and read a bible.

Hamlet entered in spotlight from the back while Ophelia was shrouded in darkness near the edge of the thrust, her chair turned away from him.

Like many of his soliloquys in this production, “To be” was very subdued in tone, taking advantage of the intimate space to allow a very quiet delivery of the lines, which accentuated their inward-looking reflective content. Hamlet’s outward calm was betrayed only by a faint tear that trilled down his cheek.

The undercurrent of self-destruction inherent in his words became apparent when he spoke of making “his quietus” “With a bare bodkin” and slowly gestured cutting his wrist with an invisible knife.

The lights came up on Ophelia, providing his cue to notice her. She turned round in her chair to ask him how he was, to which he replied with a sheepish “Well, well, well.”

She offered to return the remembrances (a letter) quite calmly. When he denied having given her “aught” she proffered the letter again, stating firmly, and with hint of condescending admonishment at the obvious absurdity of his claim, “you know right well you did”.

Instead of losing his temper in his replies, Hamlet was also very calm. He appeared to be trying to rekindle their relationship. This developed into an interesting reading of the sequence.

During their debate about the relative merits of beauty and chastity he took her by the hand and they strolled about quite amicably as if they had broken up by mutual consent and this was their moment of declaring themselves just good friends.

But this low-level intimacy soon flowered into something more intense.

They drew close and held each other round the waist as Hamlet told her “I did love you once.”

Ophelia’s response “you made me believe so” was heartfelt and longing rather than an angry contribution to a row. Hamlet’s next phrase “You should not have believed me” continued this mood.

Sensing a growing intimacy between them, Ophelia whispered “I was the more deceived” as she kissed him. Hamlet kissed her back in a passionate embrace.

But he suddenly seemed to change his mind and drew back from her slightly, telling Ophelia softly “Get thee to a nunnery”. He then broke away from her completely and tried to justify his rejection of her by outlining his supposed faults.

As he castigated himself, Hamlet again displayed no anger towards Ophelia. As a considerate friend, he was trying to help her get over him: whatever they had once had, he now realised that their relationship could never work.

She listened to him, but as he once again softly advised her “Go thy ways to a nunnery” she took off her top and went to kiss him again, her near nudity emphasising the depth of her desire to rekindle their love.

Fate intervened.

At that very instant an offstage knock was heard that immediately informed Hamlet that he was being overheard.

He pointed and wagged his finger at Ophelia as he asked angrily “Where’s your father?” Her top, which had been clasped between their bodies in the nearness of their embrace, fell to the floor.

Her obviously deceitful answer caused him to fly into a rage. He bellowed that Polonius should “play the fool nowhere but in’s own house” at the unseen eavesdropper.

He tore Ophelia’s letter into shreds as he shouted a series of misogynistic taunts at her.

Declaring that “we will have no more marriages” he threw the shreds into the air so that they fell to the ground like confetti. For good measure, he also kicked her top along the ground back at her.

He stormed over to the secret door to scream at the unseen eavesdroppers that “all but one” of those already married should live.

With a final cry of “To a nunnery, go!” Hamlet rushed away. Ophelia leant against the back wall to decry the overthrow of his “noble mind”.

The obvious initial attachment between Hamlet and Ophelia in this sequence meant that Claudius’s statement “Love! His affections do not that way tend” had a ring of untruth about it. Despite Hamlet’s final rejection of her, sparked by his realisation that he was being spied on, he had clearly been loving towards her.

As Claudius and Polonius determined that Hamlet would be sent to England and also instructed to see his mother, Ophelia crouched on the ground trying to collect and reassemble the shredded pieces of the letter.

3.2

A player entered reciting his lines in preparation for the performance. Hamlet intercepted him and offered his ‘advice to the players’. The staging of this sequence thus provided interpolated lines for Hamlet to comment on.

The thrust stage was rearranged with the desk moved to its end and the sofa and chairs moved upstage to provide seating for the onstage audience.

Hamlet’s encounter with the female Horatia provided another instance of otherwise innocuous dialogue taking on a whole new meaning because of that character’s regendering.

The prince’s praise for the virtues of his now female ‘best friend’ was spoken as the pair held each other round the waist in the aftermath of Hamlet’s break-up with Ophelia.

Two phrases said by Hamlet to Horatia stood out in this respect:

“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice[edit]/Sh’ath sealed thee for herself”

and

“Give me that *soul* man/That is not passion’s slave and I will wear *her* him/In my heart’s core”.

The overall effect was to suggest that Hamlet’s split from Ophelia was due, at least in part, to him having met someone new at university.

But despite the affection and warm words expressed here, nothing in their subsequent interactions, at least while Hamlet was still alive, looked like the flowering of the kind of fully declared amorous romance he had enjoyed with his ex.

The court entered to view the play, providing the prince with an opportunity to taunt his uncle. Hamlet sat himself behind the desk (the one bearing the royal Danish seal) to answer Claudius’s questions sarcastically almost as if doing an impression of him, but in a Scottish accent.

He came out from behind the desk to joke with Polonius about his student acting. Gertrude asked Hamlet to sit next to her, but instead he approached Ophelia. In view of their bad-tempered argument, she was unsurprisingly nervous around him and did not appreciate his “country matters” jokes.

Finally settling down to watch the entertainment, Hamlet sat on the ground at the foot of the sofa between it and Ophelia’s neighbouring chair.

The dumb show was cut and Rosacrantz and Guildastern helped out the two-man acting company by providing a haltingly amateurish joint delivery of the play’s prologue.

The Player King and Queen sat on the edge of the table to act out the latter’s reluctance to remarry once the former were dead.

Delighted at the Player Queen’s rejection of second marriage, Hamlet rose from ground exclaiming “Wormwood!” and went behind the sofa for a while to observe the Player King’s counterargument and the Queen’s renewed refusal.

There was a pause in the performance as the Player King lay down to sleep, during which Hamlet rushed out in front of the onstage audience to ask Gertrude how she liked the play.

He returned behind the sofa where, speaking at close range to his targets, he taunted Claudius with the idea that they were both guiltless “free souls”, announced the next character as Lucianus, and teased Ophelia with another lewd allusion.

Lucianus poured poison into the Player King’s ear at which point Hamlet rushed forward and jumped on the table, from which lofty vantage point he outlined the plot with the killer reference to how “the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”.

Claudius rose from the sofa and approached Hamlet. Stood at the foot of the table, he looked up at the triumphant prince briefly, but then turned away to his right, looked at the ground and then revolved right round before skulking off the left thrust exit, muttering softly “Give me some light, away”.

This reluctance to confront Hamlet directly together with Claudius’s submissive body language and sullen exit, prompted Hamlet’s “let the stricken deer go weep”.

Hamlet did a victory dance and sent Horatia to fetch some recorders. His jubilation was interrupted by Guildastern and Rosacrantz who implored him to visit Gertrude.

Horatia returned with a recorder which Hamlet used to shame Guildastern about her attempted manipulation of him. Polonius also encouraged Hamlet to visit his mother, a request that he met with his sarcastic game of cloudspotting.

Left alone to consider his next step, Hamlet described the late hour as the “witching time of night”. Crucially, his line “I will speak daggers to her but use none” was deliberately cut for reasons that were to become very apparent.

3.3

The brief appearances by Rosacrantz, Guildastern and Polonius were cut from the beginning of the scene to concentrate on the solitary figure of Claudius as he wrestled with his conscience.

The king was still wearing the dinner jacket he had put on for the play, but now his bow tie was undone and hanging loosely round his neck. A lighting effect was used to beam a cross shape onto the desk at the far end of the thrust to suggest that the location was some kind of chapel.

He declared “my offence is rank” before attempting to pray by placing his left hand on his heart and raising his right hand upwards.

This did not work, and Claudius expressed extreme torment when he collapsed and bewailed his “wretched state”. He knelt to pray again.

Hamlet entered through the centre door behind Claudius. Dagger in hand, he directed its point down towards the top of the kneeling Claudius’s head as he considered killing him. Deeming the moment inapt, he changed his mind and skulked away. Claudius rose to his feet, and dissatisfied with his attempt, removed the cross from round his neck and slammed it down on the desk before exiting.

3.4

The desk was moved to the centre of the thrust stage and decked with bedding to create an approximation of a bed within Gertrude’s closet.

Polonius hid in the secret doorway concealed behind the portrait of Claudius in the back wall.

Gertrude remained upstage while Hamlet entered, dagger drawn, from the thrust entrance. This aggressive armed stance made necessary the text edit in the “witching hour” sequence as outlined above.

The mutual rebuffs were strongly delivered and showed that Gertrude was a match for Hamlet’s force of character, at least at first.

Frustrated by Hamlet’s intransigence, Gertrude made to leave saying she would “set those to you who can speak”. Hamlet took hold of her, prompting her cry, Polonius’s echoing of it and Hamlet’s decisive action.

Approaching the source of the sound behind the Claudius portrait, Hamlet struck his dagger through it repeatedly. He turned away and lingered on the thrust part of the stage away from the back wall, looking in the opposite direction as Polonius staggered out and collapsed dead.

Hamlet did not know whom he had killed and when he let slip a reference to the killing of his father, Gertrude repeated Hamlet’s shock accusation back at him “As kill a king?”

This questioning provoked Hamlet to shout back very loudly “Ay, lady, it was my word”. But as he did so, he caught sight of the dead Polonius and realised that he hadn’t killed the new king.

He approached the back wall and looked at the slashed picture of Claudius that covered Polonius’s hiding place as if stabbing through it should, by some form of symbolic magic, have killed its subject. He stared in bewilderment at Gertrude, and finally switched his gaze onto the dead body in absolute consternation.

With a mixture of incomprehension and panic. Hamlet leant over Polonius’s body and shouted at it “Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” in a desperate attempt at shifting the blame onto his victim.

Hamlet showed Gertrude the two pictures, the one of his father on the wall stage right and the now torn one of Claudius stage left.

Expressing his disgust as Gertrude’s intimacy with Claudius, the prince pulled up the bedding from the bed when referring to its “rank sweat” and continued to rail at her as the pair wandered to the end of the thrust. The ghost entered again through the centre door to remind Hamlet of his task.

The ghost slowly approached Hamlet, limping down the length of the thrust, and touched him on the side of the head before disappearing down the left thrust exit.

Gertrude assumed Hamlet’s vision of his dead father was a sign of madness. The pair sat on the ground and Hamlet took her hand and placed it on his neck so that she could feel that his pulse “doth temperately keep time”.

After this Gertrude and Hamlet were reconciled. They sat on the edge of the bed and Gertrude stroked his arm affectionately. The mention of Hamlet being sent to England was cut. The sequence ended with a now subdued Hamlet dragging Polonius’s body away.

4.1

Claudius found Gertrude and asked her what had happened. She began her explanation with a degree of composure, but leant against and slid down the back wall and sat slumped on the ground when describing the killing of the “unseen good old man”.

The king dispatched Rosacrantz and Guildastern to find Hamlet.

The recovery in Gertrude’s composure did not last long. She sank and knelt at the side of the bed sobbing.

Claudius tried to comfort by implying that he was also upset, saying “O come away,/My soul is full of discord and dismay” in a truly patronising tone of voice as if he were comforting a child. His pretence to fellow feeling was a patently cynical and insincere untruth.

4.2

After ensuring that Polonius’s body was “safely stowed” Hamlet was confronted by Rosacrantz who demanded to know the whereabouts of the deceased. The prince disdainfully compared her to a “sponge” that would eventually be squeezed dry of the king’s favours once she had outlived her usefulness.

Rosacrantz drew a handgun from the back of her trousers and forced Hamlet to accompany her. But such a threat appeared unnecessary as the prince gleefully ran ahead of her, requesting to be brought to Claudius.

4.3

Claudius’s interrogation of Hamlet was characterised by the audacity and effectiveness of the prince’s taunts. The fact that his wit and rhetorical dexterity could provoke his uncle to violence, paradoxically demonstrated Claudius’s weakness.

The king’s first attempt at questioning him was met by a soft, sarcastic riff on the body being eaten by worms.

His second try elicited another jocular response, but with a sting in the tail. Hamlet suggested that if Claudius’s messenger could not find Polonius in heaven “seek him i’th’ other place yourself”. This bitter barb so provoked Claudius that he suddenly lunged forward at Hamlet before equally quickly checking himself.

Hamlet greeted the news that he was to be sent to England by addressing Claudius as his “dear mother”. Claudius didn’t understand why, and when Hamlet explained his reasoning and embraced him as his mother, Claudius angrily and forcefully pushed him away with both hands.

Not often do productions portray that kind of anger and violence from Claudius once he has Hamlet firmly in his grasp.

The scene ended with a truncated version of Claudius’s invocation “And England, if my love thou hold’st at aught,[edit] effect/The present death of Hamlet…”

4.4

The staging of Hamlet’s departure from Denmark to England was reworked so that Fortinbras and the Norwegian Captain did not appear. Instead the Captain’s lines were transferred to Horatia.

Horatia, Hamlet, Rosacrantz and Guildastern appeared in moody dark outdoor coats against an equally moody projected backdrop of sombre clouds. A brief sound effect of overflying jets indicated the impending conflict between Norway and Poland.

Hamlet questioned Horatia about the troop movements, and her well-informed replies included her statement “We go to gain a little patch of ground…” – a line that only made sense if Horatia were herself Norwegian. As the text makes plain, this battle has nothing to do with Denmark.

Left by himself, Hamlet pondered the implications of “How all occasions do inform against me”. Once again, the intimacy of the space enabled another dialled down reflection on his situation.

On this calming note, the interval came.

4.5

The start of the second half saw Horatia, taking the Gentleman’s lines, telling Gertrude that Ophelia was “distract”. They were both wearing coats, indicating that this sequence took place outdoors.

After Horatia had gone to fetch Ophelia, Gertrude bent forward and nearly threw up. She proceeded to contextualise this by explaining that her soul was sick and that “Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”.

This physical symptom of her inner distress followed on neatly from previous manifestations of her unhappiness.

Ophelia rushed straight towards Gertrude crying “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before hugging her enthusiastically round the waist, and maintaining that grip as she swung the two of them round.

She began singing fragments of songs, which attracted the attention of the newly-arrived Claudius who asked her how she was.

Replying “Well, good dild you” Ophelia bowed so close in front of him that she touched him. She went behind his back and slid up and down in mimicry of a pole-dancing movement as she commented “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter”.

Her rebuffs to Claudius were spoken firmly and directly in his face, demonstrating that she was not afraid of the repercussions of expressing these manic sublimated accusations.

Ophelia’s actions became increasingly lewd.

She began singing “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She illustrated the phrase “Then UP he rose” by punching her arm up phallicly between Claudius’s legs as she stressed the word. A similar gesture and stress accompanied “By COCK they are to blame”.

Ophelia lay on her back and simulated sex with her legs flat on the ground but bent apart at the knee, thrusting upwards rhythmically to the beat of “So would I ha’ done etc.” which she sang in a mocking imitation of the voice of the man who was breaking his promise to marry her precisely because of her willingness to accommodate him.

She clasped comically at her stomach as if this supposed intercourse had instantly produced a pregnancy. This gesture informed the line “We must be patient” with the implication that she was referring to herself and her unborn child.

Ophelia bade the “Sweet ladies, goodnight” and departed.

Laertes’ arrival was not announced by a messenger but by gunfire sound effects as he burst in brandishing a handgun.

His previous sweet disposition made this act of violence look out of character and thus all the more desperate. This was perhaps why Claudius did not appear overly scared when he tried to talk Laertes down.

Ophelia swept in, slowly flapping her arms likes wings, then froze in position among them. Laertes expounded at length on her pitiful condition stood right next to her.

She had brought with her numerous aromatherapy bottles containing flower essences. She made Laertes sit on the ground next to her and handed the first two bottles to him, which she named as rosemary and pansies.

As he took the bottles from her, Ophelia snatched the gun from his hand, got up from the ground and pointed the weapon at the others. She did not have her hand properly gripped on the trigger, so that her threat was more symbolic than real.

Ophelia distributed the rest of the bottles and made the four of them kneel at an imagined graveside. They were encouraged to pour the essences onto the grave while she stood at its head leading them in singing “And will he not come again?” as if it were a well-known tune. The popular familiarity of this tune had been suggested at the start of the performance by Hamlet playing it on the piano.

The ‘mourners’ put their hands together as if in prayer and poured the bottles on the ground in this mock funeral ceremony.

The pitiful sorrow of this spectacle took a shocking turn.

As Ophelia wished the others farewell with “God buy you” she pointed the gun at her own head as if about to shoot herself. But just at that instant she clutched at her stomach, feeling another imagined baby kick, and rushed away still clasping her hands over her stomach.

Given the playful mocking origins of Ophelia’s ‘pregnancy’ during simulated sex while singing a song about male promise-breaking, and the lack of an obvious baby bump, it is unlikely that Ophelia was actually pregnant. The most plausible explanation was that this supposed baby was part of her madness.

Claudius told Laertes he had to “commune with your grief” and handed the young man’s gun back to him in an act that symbolised how Claudius was effectively ‘rearming’ him.

4.6

If the reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia whom Hamlet praised and held close round the waist had generated questions about the precise nature of their relationship, then this next brief scene of perfunctory exposition became unexpectedly enlivened by its provision of a further telling piece of the puzzle.

Horatia read out a letter from Hamlet that explained how he had survived the pirate attack on the ship taking him to England.

At the point where Hamlet explained “in the grapple I boarded them” she paused, lowered the letter and looked knowingly at the audience as if to say ‘tsk, typical Hamlet!’, before continuing to the end.

She acted like an established girlfriend rolling her eyes at yet another piece of bizarre but nonetheless endearing behaviour by her beloved.

Horatia read out the letter’s sign-off “Farewell. He that thou knowest thine. Hamlet.”

Written to a female Horatia, this phrase took on the sound of a declaration of erotic love. Not surprisingly therefore she clutched the letter to her chest as if it were a lover’s token.

These small but powerful hints provided a strong indication of her attachment to Hamlet.

4.7

Claudius explained to Laertes why he had not taken action against Hamlet.

Their discussion was interrupted by Horatia, not a Messenger, who brought Hamlet’s letters to Claudius.

She was dismissed with a very rude “Leave us” by Claudius, indicating perhaps that he disliked her for being too closely associated with the prince.

Claudius and Laertes devised the plot to kill Hamlet using a toxic-tipped foil and poisoned chalice.

Their deliberations were cut short by the appearance of Gertrude. She walked slowly across the back of the stage, trailing her white coat behind her and softly mumbling the production’s theme song “And will he not come again?” all of which added to the dejection of her expression as she told Laertes that his sister had drowned.

5.1

Ophelia’s grave was prepared by only one gravedigger, so the scene’s initial comic banter was cut. The gravedigger simply stood in the trap door at the centre of the thrust and threw out skulls while singing the song provided for him in the original text “In youth when I did love, did love”.

Hamlet and Horatia appeared from the thrust entrance and made fun of the gravedigger, joking that one of the disinterred skulls might be that of a lawyer.

As the gravedigger sung of how “age with his stealing steps/Hath clawed me in his clutch” he took an implausibly intact skeletal forearm and connected fingers, and played with them to make them appear to walk around the edge of the grave.

He arranged some skulls in front of him and used some short bones to drum on them enthusiastically as he continued to sing.

After trading witticisms with the gravedigger, Hamlet picked up Yorick’s skull and actually wretched before saying “My gorge rises at it”.

He adopted a Northern Irish accent to ventroliquise the skull saying “Now get you to my lady’s chamber… to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”

Unlike many contemporary productions, RADA’s Hamlet did not cut the lines referencing how Alexander the Great’s dust could have turned into a plug stopping a bung-hole.

The pair lurked in the left thrust entrance when the funeral procession entered. Ophelia was wrapped in a white shroud and carried by Laertes in his arms. He placed her just by the graveside and asked “What ceremony else?”

Gertrude quietly poured some of Ophelia’s aromatherapy essence onto her, which she touchingly characterised as “Sweets to the sweet”.

Instead of leaping into the grave to be reunited with an already interred Ophelia, Laertes’ emotional reunion involved picking her up and carrying her down into the grave where he held her in his loving fraternal grasp.

Hamlet emerged from the shadows to confront Laertes, who jumped out of the grave and grabbed Hamlet with both hands by the throat. They were soon separated and restrained. The gravedigger held back Laertes while Horatia held back Hamlet to stop them fighting.

Hamlet swore at Laertes for outfacing him, and then fixed Claudius menacingly in his gaze, promising him that “dog will have his day”. This night-time scene was lit partly by the mourners’ handheld electric torches and Claudius’s torch ominously illuminated Hamlet’s face as he threatened him.

5.2

In the more relaxed atmosphere of the palace interior, Hamlet told Horatia about the plot to kill him. He had what appeared to be the original letter from Claudius to the king of England containing his death sentence. He defused her objections to the letter switch that had doomed Rosacrantz and Guildastern by asserting that they “did make love to this employment”.

Osric was played by the same actor as the clownish Polonius, which enabled him to negotiate both these roles with little effort. The courtier intruded on the pair marching in exaggerated military drill steps.

Hamlet made fun of him and insisted that he both remove and replace his pork pie hat in quick succession.

Osric’s verbose and meandering message about the return of Laertes and the bet on the fencing bout was sufficiently irritating for even Horatia to join in the mockery, so that “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” was said by both of them to heighten its effect.

The sequence’s references to anachronistic “carriages” and “hangers” were cut.

Osric exited using exaggerated drill turns and steps. Hamlet followed close behind copying the courtier’s movements in mockery of his rigid military gait. This was an extension of the parodying of his affected overblown speech.

Hamlet’s calm resignation before the bout was indicated by his assurance that “the readiness is all”.

The court assembled amid the preparations for the fencing. A series of interlocking metal grilles was assembled in a line to form a long fencing piste down the length of the performance space. Two benches were arranged diagonally either side of the upstage end of the piste and a table was placed at its upstage end, the entire configuration forming an arrow shape.

Gertrude watched from stage right, while court outcast Horatia spied on events from the left thrust entrance.

Claudius made Hamlet and Laertes hold hands and make up, which Hamlet did calmly and at length.

The two fencers tried out foils at the downstage end of the thrust, but actually fought with both foil and dagger.

They readied themselves at the centre of the piste where Osric kept them separate until the swift withdrawal of his hand signified the start of the bout.

Hamlet immediately lunged forward in a confident move, striking the tip of Laertes’ sword with such determination that Laertes retreated in surprise. Laertes then tried a similar forward lunge at Hamlet, but he did not budge.

This initial token exchange established Hamlet as the more aggressive and confident swordsman. This seemed a reasonable outcome given Laertes’ characteristic mildness.

Once the bout began in earnest they both fought equally skilfully until Hamlet touched Laertes on his arm, which was declared a palpable hit.

Claudius took a pearl and placed it in the glass and offered it to Hamlet. He refused it and the glass was put on a tray carried by a servant.

Hamlet’s second hit, on the side of Laertes’ stomach, was conceded by his opponent. During the resulting pause, Gertrude used her handkerchief to mop Hamlet’s brow. She took the glass from the tray held by the nearby servant. Claudius, who was at the other end of the piste with Laertes, pleaded slowly and softly “Gertrude, do not drink”, but she firmly insisted that she would.

A third combat ended when the fencers’ foils and daggers ended up locked into a square formation, which was declared “Nothing neither way”.

The time had come for the bout to turn nasty.

Laertes stuck the “unbated” end of his foil into Hamlet’s back. The prince writhed in pain for some time after it hit home.

Hamlet turned and glowered at Laertes. As he was wearing thick gloves, Hamlet was able to grasp the still extended blade in his hands and wrench it from Laertes’ grip before using it to strike his opponent in the back in the same way.

Amid general consternation at the sudden violence, Laertes picked up Hamlet’s sword and they fought with each other again, but without daggers.

The fierce skirmish ended with Hamlet dealing another blow to Laertes’ stomach. The intensity of this hit could explain why of the two of them Laertes died first.

Laertes collapsed on the ground, followed almost instantly by Gertrude, who explained that her drink had been drugged.

Laertes told Hamlet about the poisoned blade. Claudius tried to grab the blade of the foil from Hamlet. But his attempt failed, giving Hamlet the opportunity to turn it on Claudius, who staggered away and collapsed at far end of the thrust.

Hamlet retrieved the poisoned glass from where Gertrude had dropped it and forced the remainder of its deadly contents into Claudius’s mouth as he lay helpless on his back.

With his dying breath Laertes asked to “Exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet and the two were reconciled.

The prince turned to Horatia, who stood just near him in left thrust entrance, and declared “I am dead, Horatia” before staggering back down the piste towards Gertrude. He fell to the ground right next to her, exclaiming “Wretched Queen, adieu”.

Hamlet sat upright looking back at the others, clutching his chest as he declared that “This fell sergeant Death/Is strict in his arrest”, his speech increasingly affected by the sharp contortions wracking his body.

All this time Horatia remained at a distance cowering just offstage, possibly because Claudius’s earlier rude dismissal still made her feel reticent about showing her face at a court event. But given that of the non-servants only she and Hamlet were now left alive this should not have been an obstacle.

Hamlet spoke to Horatia again saying that he was “dead” and that she should “report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied”.

This time she hurried to Hamlet’s side, exclaiming that she was “more an antique Roman than a Dane”. She took the poisoned glass in an attempt to drink its dregs, but he snatched it back from her.

She remained crouched on all fours at his right side.

After losing the tussle over the cup, Horatia took hold of Hamlet’s hand and kept holding it continuously until he was taken from her at the end of the sequence. This intense physical contact said more about their relationship than any of their previous embraces.

The sound of cannon was heard, prompting Hamlet to ask about the “warlike noise”. Osric informed him that it was the approach of Fortinbras.

Hamlet was now in his last few minutes.

He began sat upright but gradually leant further back, Horatia’s firm hold on his right hand enabling his descent to be both slow and smooth. As he reclined, he also gradually reached out with his left hand towards the dead Gertrude so that when almost fully prone, his fingers clasped hers.

The spectacle of devoted Horatia firmly gripping his hand while he reconciled himself with the mother whom he had moments before dismissed as “wretched” was very moving.

Those with memories stretching back to the start of the performance might have been reminded of the moment when Claudius escorted Gertrude away from Hamlet, breaking a hand contact they had established and which this sequence re-established.

Hamlet gave his approval of Fortinbras with his dying voice. He looked up briefly to declare “The rest is silence”.

And then there was a significant pause of silence as Horatia continued to gaze at his now dead body, still grasping his hand.

Horatia was given the final words of the performance, which were taken from her character’s responses and interactions with non-appearing characters and a few lines borrowed from Fortinbras himself.

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
(sound of drums) Why does the drum come hither?

Give order that these bodies
(She faltered in grief at the phrase “these bodies” as she leant over Hamlet: she raised his hand, still firmly in her grasp, to her mouth and kissed it, then clasped it to her heart)
High on the stage be placed to the view,
[intervening lines] All this can I
Truly deliver.

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.

Hamlet was slowly carried away on the shoulders of four people to a choral version of “And will he not come again?” while Horatia stood stiffly by and watched.

Once Hamlet had been carried offstage, the lights went down.

Conclusions

The reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia was a simple switch that added an extra dimension to the story and new meaning to otherwise unremarkable lines, transforming this character from best mate to lover.

Despite the involvement of a director and principal actor who could easily have sold out a much larger venue over a considerably longer run, this production was perfectly tailored to its small studio theatre space.

It could have survived a transfer to somewhere like the Almeida or Donmar. But had it transferred to a bigger theatre, it would have lost its essential features which were a simplicity of staging and ultra-close audience proximity.

However, it seems unlikely that Tom Hiddleston will leave his Hamlet ambitions behind in Malet Street. At another time and in another place, he will retread the path from “A little more than kin, and more than kind” through to “The rest is silence”.

But improving on this performance and making as close a connection with the audience will be a really difficult task.

Credits

The production was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Ayesha Antoine – Rosacrantz / Bernarda

Lolita Chakrabarti – Queen Gertrude

Eleanor de Rohan – Guildastern / Marcella / Priest

Nicholas Farrell – King Claudius

Sean Foley – Polonius / Osric

Tom Hiddleston – Hamlet

Ansu Kabia – King Hamlet / Player King / Gravedigger

Caroline Martin – Horatia

Irfan Shamji – Laertes / Player Queen

Kathryn Wilder – Ophelia

hamletseating

Advertisements

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