When I emigrated here a decade ago, I had some vague notion I’d always be swanning off to the RSC. Needless to say, this has not come to pass. Which is how I found myself last night in a deconsecrated church in Ancoats, sweaty and nervous, about to have my first live experience of High Church British Shakespeare courtesy of Manchester International Festival. I don’t know why I was so nervous, because of course Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's Macbeth was great. Of course it was.
They somehow managed to fit Scotland into that little place, complete with rain, mud and peaty smells. The staging was in-your-face, with armies charging about in the muck and much brutal rutting and grappling inches from the audience. It was cleverly done: resourceful use of the natural lighting provided by the building, and a set that addressed the problems of this unusual venue (spoilers!). And the cast was pretty good overall. The Sainted Sir Ken was as good as you'd expect. Alex Kingston was a tremendous lady Macbeth, with other standout performances from Ray Fearon as a quietly imposing MacDuff and Daniel Ings as the porter, who provides the few laughs what is not a exactly a chucklefest of a play.
To commit murder for personal gain is to destroy your own faith in humanity, and any hope for peace you might ever have, because you truly understand the horrific lengths people will go to. This production was especially effective in showing us the progress of this revelation within the minds of Macbeth – once a good man worthy of trust – and Lady Macbeth, who couldn’t harden her own heart enough. When their stifled consciences caught up with them, erupting into feverish visions and waking nightmares, madness was the inevitable result. Followed swiftly by death, which felt like a blessed relief for everyone concerned.
It was a relief for all of us in the audience too, because the seating was maddeningly uncomfortable and it was hot enough to fry an egg on Macduff’s shield. Yes, I know uncomfy seating is the price we pay for getting to see theatre in unusual spaces. In this case, it was a price worth paying, but if I had stayed any longer in there I might have started having a few hallucinations of my own. As good as it was, the moment of emerging outside in the evening air was pretty much the highlight of the festival for me so far. I'm not alone. In his review, fellow blogger David Hartley picked this out as an issue for him too. A plea to theatre/festival overlords: we know you can't control the weather, but the comfort of the audience is worth thinking pretty hard about.
I always hate reading rave reviews of things that have been sold out for months, and tickets for this went in nanoseconds, though it’s always worth checking for returns on the day of performance. But look! National Theatre Live is screening it in cinemas all over the country. Hey, maybe they'll even have air conditioning.