Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival, live cinema transmission, 20 July 2013.
The National Theatre Live series of digitally transmitted theatre performances sits somewhere between film, TV and theatre. It’s live, like theatre, and it goes into cinemas to provide some sense of a theatre-like shared experience with an audience but the live event is mediatised via a screen and it can be shown again later. Some theatre-goers are sceptical about seeing theatre this way but I saw The National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors at my local cinema last year and thoroughly enjoyed it; you get the best seats in the house, it’s affordable and you don’t have to spend all day travelling there and back – what’s not to like?
Rob Ashford’s and Kenneth Branagh’s co-production of Macbeth for the 2013 Manchester International Festival was a hot ticket; this was Branagh’s first Shakespeare stage performance in over ten years and the three week run sold out in nine minutes. Several newspapers gave it a five star review and every cinema in Birmingham, UK, where I saw it, was sold out to the extent that the big multiplex put on an extra screen. This is event theatre.
The combination of the location, the show was performed in a deconsecrated church, and the American choreographer/director, Rob Ashford, co-directing with Branagh promised a bold and experimental approach to the text. It was played en avenue with an audience of 280 seated behind wooden partitions facing each other across the mud-filled nave of St Peter’s Church in Manchester. The opening battle scene and the witches’ first appearance in the church windows with faces caked in mud set the context; this is a production, like Hamlet, crawling between heaven and earth; rooted in the physicality of life and death, children and murder, but with the spirit world never far away.
But having set up such a powerful image the production seemed unsure what to do with it. The muddy, rain-lashed battle scene was terrific but Ashford and Branagh neither removed the mud nor made any further reference to it in subsequent scenes. Might Macbeth get muddier as his moral decline progresses, perhaps? Maybe Malcolm is going to arrive clean when everyone else on stage is covered in filth? Neither, the actors just ignored it and once we got past the first scene it increasingly felt as if the images of the church and the mud framed the play without illuminating it.
The sense of decorating without interrogating the play ran through the production. The kilts and broadswords period setting and the scattered but inconsistent Scottish accents said little about the history of the real medieval king, the themes of Shakespeare’s Jacobean play or its relevance in the 21st century. Are the witches human, supernatural or figments of Macbeth’s imagination? Hard to say, they’re just muddy women. How does Duncan’s Scotland differ from Macbeth’s? It doesn’t; when the entire stage has been mired in mud from the start, it all looks pretty much the same. The Porter’s scene, played in a gallery above the audience, had an interesting Punch and Judy, commedia dell’arte style, with various body parts popping up from behind a screen and out of doors but Kingston’s jerky movements in the other gallery scene, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalk, seemed based on 1920s expressionist dance. The long cross of light the length of the nave for ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ was simple and effective but it was then replaced by a crudely literal Victorian melodrama Pepper’s Ghost effect to make it move. The witches’ apparitions in Act IV, scene 1 emerged from under a cloth; it was nicely done but it felt like the solution to a problem rather than the expression of an integrated artistic vision.
The performances were spoken with clarity but delivered at full speed and full volume with little variation. I like a fast Shakespeare as much as anyone but in such a small space and with cameras everywhere it really wasn’t necessary and I found the speed and volume dulled rather than energised the play and at times the sense was lost. Ray Fearon reduced Macduff’s ‘all my pretty chickens, and their dam’ to bellowing rhetoric and when the producer of the live relay knows to keep the camera on Branagh long enough to catch his trail of drool all the way down to the ground on ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ it suggests it wasn’t a one-off accident, it’s part of the performance.
Maybe the video transmission was unkind and what looked and sounded coarse on the screen worked better in the flesh. The television cameras certainly went for as many close-ups as they could which broke up the stage picture and diminished the theatricality. But while I know from other NT Live shows that the cinema transmission of live theatre can be a new and exciting experience this one, for me, didn’t work.