The medium is the message: NT Live brings Manchester’s Macbeth to the screen

20th July 2013

When we heard that Kenneth Branagh’s new production of Macbeth, staged as part of the Manchester International Festival in a tiny deconsecrated church, and sold out within minutes, was going to be given the NT Live treatment, screened to cinemas all over the country and beyond on a single night, we decided that now would be a good time to give it a try.  With little hope of seeing Branagh’s performance any other way, we would at least be able to experience the show without worrying whether we would be splattered with mud, as some audience members have been.

The start is certainly dramatic.  After the first entrance of the three weird sisters, rather than hearing about the battle, we witness it along with them, and not content with a stage floor made of earth, the start of the battle is heralded by a downpour, making this production literally ‘down and dirty’.  We are left in no doubt that this is a true period production, with mud, tartan and heavy swords.  But the real question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is ever possible to have a theatrical experience in a cinema.  Can we really join the party, or are we forever relegated to the outside, pressing our nose up against the window of the action.

Interestingly, the layout of the theatre is in our least favourite style – traverse – so it is almost impossible to avoid the sight of audience members (in this case mostly fanning themselves in the heat), and while this might add some frisson for those in the front rows as characters are literally murdered under the noses, for us it was slightly surreal, although the medium of film does probably help to mitigate the effect of ‘tennis neck’ that we tend to find, as the camera naturally follows the action for us.  And there is plenty of it – the production aims to show rather than tell wherever possible, conveying the sense that the Macbeths’ frankly perverse choices were inevitable.  Thus we see the murder of Duncan taking place – and see that he wakes up as Macbeth approaches, forcing his hand, and the visions of the weird sisters are brilliantly brought to life, with the parade of Banquo’s future heirs marching past an appalled Macbeth as it comes home to him that he will never be able to hand down his spoils – for him there is only a ‘barren sceptre’.  Even the ‘humourous’ porter’s speech is made more palpable as he literally juggles bodies behind the ‘gates of hell’.

The real question is whether the visual experience dominates the senses, whilst lacking the physical sense of being in a confined space with the characters.  The mud, which makes such a spectacular ‘entrance’, becomes strangely alienating by the end as the high angle makes it more obvious that the actors are having to literally pick their way through it, and the final battles also loses a little without the sense of danger that comes from being in the theatre to witness it.

Where the camera does seem to work well is in highlighting the ‘set piece’ moments of the play, for example the striking performance of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene by Alex Kingston, the terrible sense of foreboding as Rosalie Craig’s Lady Macduff realises her husband has left her alone with her children, and Ray Fearon’s powerful transformation from grieving widower to vengeful soldier.  Kenneth Branagh is a master of understatement and equally at home with TV and film, and in this intimate space we never felt that we were watching ‘stagey’ performances.  More than most, this production brings out the banality of evil – there is no attempt to make Macbeth charismatic or romantic, and his final realisation that it was all for nothing is genuinely painful to watch because there is no sense of redemption.

What we didn’t get from the screen was a real sense of the ensemble, which may be inevitable as the camera set-up is bound to favour close-ups on individuals.  And so we came away with mixed feelings.  On the one hand we could see for ourselves that this production deserved the rave reviews it has received, but on the other, we didn’t get that visceral thrill that comes from being in the presence of great actors performing a great play.  It did make us think that maybe we are due another film version of Macbeth, and that Branagh would be the man for the job.

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