We were lucky. Thanks to (almost) divine intervention, we got to see Macbeth, The Public Dress Rehearsal, which is barely a splash different from the play itself.
If you have a ticket, you will see the historic Ancoats mills, the high ceiling of a wonderfully restored church, a judiciously edited, well spoken modern production properly dressed in acres of tartan and wool.
Which is not to say that Shakespeare, were he to find himself sleep-walking the shadowy streets of Ancoats, might not be able to recognise his grisly work. It is all in the right place; witches, ghosts and ghoulies; treachery, murder and mayhem. Lady M is duly un-sexed, Birnam wood cunningly creeps up on Dunsinane. In an especially White Queen moment, a young lad with thick hair, from a good school in Chorlton, hopelessly defends his mum from Macbeth’s baddies with his toy sword and shield.
I cannot/will not give away the USP of this production, save to say, it is a coup de theatre that must have given the wardrobe mistress a migraine. If your seats are in the front row, dress down, or take new meaning from the washday mantra, “out, damned spot!” All else considered, the staging is the star. If you have a ticket, you will find yourself part of a relatively small but comfortable audience, in a rather lovely Italianate church in the thick of the Ancoats mills, watching a knight of the realm wrestling with broadsword, wife, Banquo and McDuff, in a high-risk strategy to land the top job.
I’m old enough to have gone to an all-boys school.
Macbeth was taken to be kid-friendly Shakespeare, what with “eye of newt and toe of frog”, and all manner of fightin’ and killin’. Twelve-year-old lads lap it up. Until it comes to Act one, scene five…
This is when Fr McGarry (mine was a Catholic school) dishes out the parts as we read the play around the class, line-by-line. And you, luckless lad, high-pitched and fast-blushing, get to read Lady M: “unsex me here…” You could have died hereafter. It may be a measure of how much the world has changed that sensitive boys de nos jour might well have a different, not to say, ambivalent response to this particular Lady M, she having been River Song in a different dimension. She who had designs on Dr Who, might well have made mums, even scheming murderous ones, quite sexy.
Alex Kingston is a good Lady Macbeth, if that is possible. She is pale and lovely, and never quite so vile and vicious as written. She brings a good helping of telegenics to the feast. That is to say, she of all the cast, does most to up-grade this particular theatrical journey for the screen generation. The telltale flesh coloured tape and wire on her creamy shoulders spoke volumes. This Macbeth is fully wired for sound. Sound design matched lighting and overall art direction in the manner of modern theatre. They even got the aroma right (though this will not be apparent to anyone watching the live screen transmission).
Ken (I feel safe in dropping the formalities, he and I having spent a good deal of the evening virtually cheek-to-cheek) is not so lovely close-up. He never was. Which is why, I think, he got to be so good. Precocious Kenneth Branagh brought his Renaissance Company to the Palace Theatre in Manchester in 1989, and staged Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Hamlet, respectively directed by Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi. I can’t remember in which of his parts he wore a Max Miller check suit and brought the house down, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Hamlet. The Belfast boy was never built to be a matinee idol, which, I suspect, is why he mastered just about every theatre and cinema craft, from producing, to taking one of the deepest most gracious bows you will ever see.
This is not a great Macbeth. Which one (apart from the Orson Welles movie) is? Interestingly, this Macbeth has come home.
In 1998 the late Michael Bogdanov directed an eight sixteen-minute episodes production of the play for schools television. This was produced by Sue Pritchard for Granada. The principal location was Gorton Monastery. Macbeth was Sean Pertwee, Lady M, Greta Scacchi, Banquo Michael Maloney. Lorcan Cranitch was McDuff, Jack Davenport Malcolm, and the Porter was Shane Ritchie.
Now, as I recall this production, it benefited from film technique; close-ups and voiced-over soliloquy, banquet in high wide-shot complete with Banquo’s ghost edited in and out. It will be especially interesting to see how the live cinema screening of this production shapes up.
I say this is not a great Macbeth, but I am very glad to have seen it.
This for many reasons, some of which I shall not describe, for fear of breaking the confidentiality of live theatre. If you have a ticket, you will see the historic Ancoats mills, the high ceiling of a wonderfully restored church, a judiciously edited, well-spoken modern production properly dressed in acres of tartan and wool.
Ray Fearon (late of Corrie) is an excellent McDuff, and this is a rare chance to see estimable John Shrapnel (Duncan) on a Manchester stage. I have absolutely no doubt that every night will be a well-earned standing ovation, and that the back streets of Ancoats will hereafter be a cherished memory in the minds of the audience.
I say I saw the dress rehearsal. I’m sure the show will only get better. Just once, in the scene in which Macbeth instructs two murderers to go after Banquo and Fleance did Branagh roll out the old razzle-dazzle. From his newly usurped throne he rattled off his death sentence, every word fresh minted, with pace and kingly nonchalance. Quite simply, masterful.
He co-directs here with celebrated choreographer Rob Ashford. Their Macbeth runs in under two hours, without an interval. It is pacey without being hurried, panoramic despite a relatively confined playing area. It is, in other words, a pitch perfect piece of stagecraft.
Once again, MIF Director Alex Poots proves he has an eye for the popular and profound. The performance on Saturday 20 July will reach out from St Peter’s Church, Blossom Street, Ancoats to the rest of the country via the National Theatre Live cinema network.
I was born in Ancoats and I knew the church when it was wrecked and very nearly burnt out. When Kenneth Branagh and his cast take their curtain call that night, knowing that it reverberates beyond that space, that street, that historic cauldron of industry, there are generations of Mancunians who can and very probably shall, ghost-like, join the line.
Macbeth is part of Manchester International Festival which runs from 4-11 July. Tickets can be bought through the website although currently Macbeth is sold out.
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