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.