By the Pricking of My Thumbs

MACBETH by Shakespeare,Like several other bloggers, I’ve recently been to see the live screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, transmitted from the Manchester International Festival.  I really appreciate the opportunity to see theatre productions that I would otherwise be unable to visit in this way.  Some of them come to Birmingham, but I tend to drive over to the little cinema in Stratford, where, if I was an opera and ballet buff as well, I could have high class culture two or three times a week without ever having to set foot in either of the RSC theatres.  I’ve seen about half a dozen performances in this way now and inevitably, some of them work better than others so for me, while this was clearly a remarkable production of a very difficult play, it was possibly the least satisfactory in terms of communicating to the cinema audience the experience of actually being in the theatre.

In part this was probably because the performance itself wasn’t in a conventional theatre space.  Instead it occupied the nave and altar of a deconsecrated church with the audience on either side of the aisle.  This must have given the watchers in the auditorium a sense of action, especially with the fights that ranged up and down the aisle, to which they were very close and which was happening right in their midst.  Inevitably, even though the cameras were able to follow that movement, for those of us watching the relay, it wasn’t the same.

There are several real advantages to experiencing theatre in the cinema. For example, you get close-ups of faces and moments in the action that you might easily miss if you were sitting at the back of the stalls.  However, a big disadvantage is that you cannot choose where to look, which, for me, is one of the great benefits of theatre over film and neither can you always see the interaction of the cast, their use of space, their reactions, unless the camera chooses to give you a long shot.  Long shots looking up the aisle to the altar were possible here, but the long shot allowing you to see what was happening at either end of the aisle at the same time wasn’t and I felt I lost a lot as a result.

But, I shouldn’t quibble because this was the only way that I was going to get to see what was a very interesting production that almost lived up to its billing.  (Let’s get one thing straight here.  I have been seeing productions of Shakespeare now for well over fifty years and most of them have been in one or other of our great national theatres.  If I come out of a production lauding it with unadulterated praise you’d better ring the box office yesterday so I am not in any way intending to damn this with faint praise.) Branagh probably comes as close as anyone I’ve seen other than McKellen, to making Macbeth work.  As far as it is possible he made me believe that here was a man who, when we first meet him, is probably as good as they come, but who is weak enough not to be able to resist temptation when it is laid before him.  The problem with Macbeth is that he has too much unfettered imagination.  Eventually, of course, this leads to floating daggers and bleeding ghosts.  Initially it allows him to tinker around with the notion that he might really become king and convince himself that it is going to be a reality.  If Macbeth had lived in the age of the lottery he would have spent the jackpot every week before he checked his numbers.  What he doesn’t have is the strategical wherewithal to bring his imaginings into being.  Enter Lady Macbeth.

The problem for any actor playing Macbeth is that probably something like half of the play leading up to the killing of Duncan is missing. Compare Macbeth to Hamlet, Othello and King Lear and you will see what I mean.  If you play any of those texts as we have them in the First Folio you’re looking at three and a half hours if you’re lucky, four if you’re not. Macbeth, on the other hand, comes in around two hours and ten minutes. Shakespeare might have written about brief candles but he didn’t write brief tragedies.  Add to that the fact that many scholars believe that the Porter owes more to Middleton than the Bard and I think that what we have is a cut down playing version made sometime after the original to meet the by-laws that really did necessitate plays that adhered to the two hour traffic of the stage.  In other words, I don’t think we have everything Shakespeare wrote and that if we did it would be those early scenes that would offer the actor more in the way of deliberation to justify the path he eventually takes.

As it is we have to rely on Lady Macbeth to plan the campaign and push him over the edge.  I’m sure Alex Kingston was excellent, but she’s an actor I’ve never warmed to, in a part I don’t like, so I’m not the best person to judge.  The other member of the cast who I really did think excellent was Ray Fearon as MacDuff.  His despair when tested by Malcolm (who has to be the biggest prig in Jacobean literature) was superb and his intent to kill when finally he faces Macbeth, chilling.  At some point I’d like to see him play the title role himself.

So, all in all, a production worth seeing and I truly am grateful for the opportunity to experience theatre I would otherwise miss.  I’m just not sure that the medium really did do this particular performance true justice.

19 thoughts on “By the Pricking of My Thumbs

  1. Hi, Alex. While I’m very envious of your opportunity to see Kenneth Branagh in almost anything (I’ll probably only get the opportunity to see him on PBS someday if the BBC sells them the rights), I’m also intrigued by your speculations about the play’s missing parts, and would like to hear more about that sometime (i.e., after re-reading the play myself and knowing a bit more about MIddleton’s contributions to Shakespeare’s plays). I can certainly see how you would come to those conclusions, and how it might seem that the actor must be in need of special ingenuity to come up with adequate motivations for Macbeth’s character.

    1. Middleton followed Fletcher as the Kings’ Men’s in house playwright, so when they needed to cut a play for performance it would be his job to do it. Or, if they needed a topical reference dropped in, as in Measure for Measure, he’d do that as well. My assertion relies on an assumption that the Folio version was set from a prompt copy rather than from foul papers, but of course, that is something that is always going to be open to question.

  2. You are so lucky! Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston as the Mabeths? I do like Kingston very much. Too bad the camera couldn’t capture it all very well. How amazing it must have been to be there in person. But even to see it broadcast, so jealous!

    1. It is supposed to have been licensed for broadcast worldwide, Stefanie, so it’s worth your while keeping an eye open to see if it’s coming to a cinema near you. If you visit the NTLive website and register for their emails, they’ll send you information about what’s showing where and when.

  3. I’m intrigued by this too. I love both Branagh and Kingston – and I’ve never actually seen or read Macbeth. I did love Branagh’s Hamlet as well as the other of his versions of Shakespeare I’ve seen so I would like to see this production.

    1. It doesn’t work as well as the Hamlet, Christina, if you are referring to the film version. I thought that was very interesting although different to the two stage versions I’ve seen him do. It took liberties with the play, but it fitted so well into that Imperial Russia setting.

  4. Interesting thoughts about the play and this screening Alex. I saw the screening and did feel as if I wasn’t really there – but if you saw Paul Morley and Sarah Churchwell on the Review Show – they didn’t like all the charging up and down and that you couldn’t necessarily see what was going on at the other end! I felt the camera work was amazing and we probably saw a lot more than the audience. Amazingly this is only my second Macbeth, I saw Derek Jacobi/Cheryl Campbell for the RSC at the Barbican back in the 1990s and that was such boring, boring production – this had excitement in spades.

    1. I had the privilege of seeing the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench production in The Other Place, Gaskella, and no Macbeth is ever going to live up to that. But it is a notoriously difficult play to bring off, partly because his descent into evil is so quick. I can see that there might have been problems with sight lines seeing it for real, but I’ve just come in from seeing Titus Andronicus in the Swan and the bottom line for me is that there is no substitute for live theatre.

  5. I’m seeing my first NT Live screening tonight (The Audience with Helen Mirren) and have been wondering how it will compare to seeing a live show. The idea that the camera will force me to look at certain things has occurred to me–the camera operators and editors end up having a sort of interpretive role.

    Macbeth is one of my favorite plays and Branagh one of my favorite Shakespearean actors, so I hope to see this as well when it comes to DC in December. Did you see Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth? I saw the filmed version and liked it a lot.

    1. The Audience worked better than any other live screening I’ve seen, Teresa. Because it’s a proscenium stage the camera choices aren’t so inclusive. I’ll be really interested to hear how an American audience takes it because a lot of it depends upon being able to remember the actual people and situations. I don’t know how well it will work if you’re not on the inside.

      I didn’t see Pat Stewart on stage as Macbeth, but I’ve been watching him on stage since 1967 and he is truly superb.

      1. People seemed to enjoy The Audience quite well. A DC audience is probably more aware of international politics than audiences in many other cities, but the play had enough about the personal dynamics between the people and the dynamics between the two roles to make it interesting, even if the nuances of the specific relationships weren’t clear. I know there were some jokes and references that I didn’t get, but there was enough that I did get to make it worthwhile.

        I agree that the camera choices weren’t intrusive. The only time I really noticed it was when the camera pulled in tightly and I knew a quick change was happening to the side. I’m guessing that at most of those moments Helen Mirren had stepped into the wings instead of changing onstage, but after that first breath-taking change, I got interested in the mechanics of it and wanted to be able to see everything happening on the stage.

        1. I very nearly went back to see it a second time to see if I could pick up how that first change worked. It was clear from the noise in the theatre that the live audience was as stunned as we both were.

          1. I suspect she had the second dress on underneath the first one–and the first one might have just had Velcro holding it on. Her dressers would only have to slip off the dress and switch the wigs, and with practice that could be quick. There was a video during the interval that talked about the change, but everyone was very coy about how it worked.

  6. I love these NT Live productions. Although I agree they’re often not the same as being physically there, they’re great for those of us who don’t get the chance to get to London or Stratford often. I haven’t seen this one, though I might manage along to one of the repeat showings, but last year I loved the Simon Russell Beale version of Timon of Athens. He’s such a great actor.

    I’m more jealous than I can say to hear that you got to see the Dench/McKellen Macbeth live. The filmed version is one of my favourite ever things – superb!

    1. The ‘Timon’ was superb. I was completely enthralled. If you trawl back far enough you’ll find the post I wrote at the time.

      The Dench/McKellen ‘Macbeth’ was fascinating. It worked brilliantly in the round in ‘The Other Place’, where everything centred on the point where the evil was sourced and spread from. However, when they moved it into the Main House, still then a proscenium, it was dire. I haven’t seen the film. I must look it out.

  7. I am a huge fan of Kenneth Branagh, and think few actor-directors have ever come as close as him to perfect renditions of Shakespeare. I can quite see why this one didn’t translate so well to broadcast. Still, it would be fabulous to see it in any form. I’m glad you got there.

    1. Did you see his Love’s Labours Lost? It took a lot of criticism, but I thought it was a really interesting look at what is a very difficult play.

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