Macbeth NTL – July 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford

Manchester International Festival

Venue: Ritz cinema, Worthing

Date: Saturday 20th July 2013

This was our first time watching a live broadcast of a theatre performance in a cinema. It may not be our last, but that won’t be from choice. As this was the only way we were going to see this production I’m glad we did it, but as we suspected the cinematic process reduced our enjoyment by a huge amount. Still, it looked like a great production in many ways and from the massive number of curtain calls, the Manchester audience clearly loved it; wish we’d been there.

We’d been warned that the performance lasted for two hours without an interval. What I hadn’t realised was that they also did adverts and trailers, plus an interesting interview with Rob Ashford, one of the directors – don’t get that at the theatre, do you? Well, actually, with the number of pre-shows and post-shows we go to…… My usual pre-performance ritual, apart from cleaning my glasses, etc., involves taking in the set, often jotting down a few notes to help me later on, and sometimes there are actors milling about being friendly with the audience to set the scene. Nothing like that tonight. There were a few seconds of the scene inside the theatre, showing the audience and one section of the stage, but then they cut away to the sponsors’ advert  which felt like a wrench. The advert was reasonably short, and then Emma Freud chatted to us for a bit, mentioning all the wonderful things which would be coming to a cinema near us in the next few months. The claim that this production had sold out in nine minutes was preposterous, of course – I assume they meant nine minutes after public booking opened, disingenuously skating over the period of priority booking only available to members of the Manchester Festival! I was feeling less and less in the mood for all this nonsense, so I wasn’t too receptive to the interview at first, but as it wore on I was at least able to see how clear the picture was, and as a warm up act it was very effective, putting me in a better frame of mind for the actual start of the show. Emma’s encouragement to us to applaud along with the audience in the theatre as the actors would “feel the love” was greeted with appropriate laughter, and then the real performance began.

Not having seen the layout beforehand I was lost several times during the broadcast as heads appeared above walls, people peered out from doorways or windows, and the amount of rushing about, especially in the early battle scenes, actually became boring when I wasn’t able to orient myself. The different areas began to make more sense as the play wore on, so I’ll describe it as best I can now to help with the rest of the notes.

The venue was a deconsecrated church. At one end, which the camera focused on at the start, there was a curved area round the back of which were lots of church candles, all lit. The central section of the church (not good with the technical terms) ran away from this, and was covered in stage mud – I could see the water glistening from time to time. At the far end was a wooden wall which had three doors in it at the same level as the candle area and a platform above which was used for the sleepwalking scene. The audience sat on either side of the central strip, facing across it, and although I could occasionally see some of the audience members, it wasn’t a distraction. Must have been hot though – there were a fair number of fans on the go. There were two exits halfway along each side, and some stained glass windows above the candle area, normally obscured except for the England scene. As the witches appeared at the opposite end to the candles, this was a clear representation of Good vs Evil; not so effective for us with this disjointed viewing – it even seemed crass at times – but it was probably very effective in the venue. Not much furniture was used, so I’ll describe that as we go.

At the start there was a woman in the candle area with her back to us – I wondered at the time if this was Lady Macbeth, and unless something happened that I didn’t see, it was indeed her. Church music was playing in the background, lots of male choir Gregorian chant stuff. The doors in the wooden wall opened and the three witches stood there, one in each, looking like murderous saints in their niches. They concluded their dialogue with the word “Macbeth”, which each one said in turn, pointing towards the man himself as they did so. We saw a close up of Macbeth – no idea where he was, presumably at the other end on the side of light at this point – and then the witches vanished behind the doors and we were into a protracted battle scene which did little for me. Lots of soldiers fighting, running up and down; with the shots coming from all angles it was hard to make sense of it in the cinema. At one point John Shrapnel, whom I assumed was playing Duncan, walked down the muddy strip, paused and took off his crown, holding it out to another man, God knows who. The other chap put his hand out to take it but Duncan snatched it back at the last second with an evil leer on his face, and the battle broke out anew. What was all that meant to tell us?

Eventually I realised they were dutifully enacting the Bloody Man’s speech, showing us the initial victory, the enemy getting reinforcements, and Banquo and Macbeth redoubling their efforts to defeat the foe. All very well, but when we don’t know who the characters are it seemed a bit pointless, not to mention time consuming, especially when Will has done such a good job of telling us all about it. This was definitely an interpretation for those who already know the play. It did have one good effect though; as we hadn’t heard that Macbeth was now Thane of Cawdor, we could relate better to his surprise when the announcement came. And he was genuinely surprised.

One of the drawbacks of the cinema experience became obvious during Macbeth’s accession to the title of Thane of Cawdor. Asides to the audience didn’t come across as asides so much as part of a bellowed conversation between the characters on stage. Despite being miked up, the actors still had to project for the theatre audience, so EVERYTHING CAME ACROSS LOUD AND CLEAR THROUGHOUT THE PERFORMANCE. No subtlety was possible with this approach, and while the battle scenes can take a bit of roaring, some of the other scenes became rather strange without the option to vary the volume. Ah well.

The rest of the scene with the witches and messengers was fine, as was the scene with Duncan, and then Lady Macbeth made her first appearance. She turned round from the candles and walked down the central section reciting the letter by heart to begin with, strongly suggesting this wasn’t the first time she’d read it. She opened it up again about half way through to read the rest, and apart from a brief stint at the candle end when the messenger came on to tell her of the king’s arrival, she was down by the witches’ hangout when it came to her invocation of dark powers.

Alex Kingston’s performance as Lady Macbeth didn’t come across so well in this format. The camera isn’t kind in these circumstances, and she came across as completely over the top a lot of the time. I’m sure her performance would have been fine in the theatre, but from our seats it was occasionally too much, as with the start of this scene and the sleepwalking scene later on. We made allowances, of course, but it still reduced our enjoyment overall, and if anything it added to our frustration that we couldn’t see the performance properly.

In addition, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth produced some weird deliveries of their lines. In this scene, Lady Macbeth paused after “Come to” and seemed to only think of “my woman’s breasts” because her hands were near her breasts at that point. The language in this play is very direct and simple; apart from one or two situations, the characters have straightforward thoughts and express them without having to cast around for ideas. These quirks of delivery aren’t necessary and are becoming increasingly tedious as I sit through production after production where the actors steadfastly refuse to speak the lines with any confidence in the author’s abilities. There’s a reason why we’re still doing Shakespeare’s plays on the stage today, and it isn’t because he’s a crap writer!

The interactions between Macbeth and his wife were pretty good though, and were the main strength of this production, which seemed to be focusing on their relationship and the way they were torn apart by the act they committed. This is a good aspect to focus on, but I did find the play significantly less engaging when the main couple weren’t on stage; bringing one aspect into sharper relief can mean obscuring the rest, and for me this was a definite drawback to tonight’s performance. Following Macbeth’s arrival there was a bit of sexual groping up against the side of the stage towards the end of the scene, after which the two of them ran off to have sex together in private.

One way they kept the pace going in this production was the conveyor belt scene change method; as the actors were finishing one scene, the actors for the next scene entered at the other end, and with a long strip of stage this was easy to do here. Duncan’s favourable description of Inverness castle and its environs seemed completely inappropriate given the muddy field he was gazing at as he spoke, but it’s only a few lines and soon Lady Macbeth came out to greet him. Her dialogue seemed very stilted and formal; as she knelt down to greet Duncan (from “Your servants ever…”) he came and stood behind her and she seemed almost scared of him.

When the king left the stage with his hostess, Macbeth appeared at the other end of the stage for “If it were done….” Again the delivery was hesitant, as if Macbeth himself didn’t really understand what he was talking about to begin with. The speech became stronger as it went on, but when Lady Macbeth arrived and the servants started coming through the area fetching and carrying for the feast, the scene became disjointed again. On the one hand it was a reasonable way to show that the couple were making plans which they had to keep secret; on the other hand they didn’t hold back on the volume for most of their argument, bellowing out words like “murder” so loudly that the guests at the banquet next door could probably hear them, never mind the servants scuttling by.

Before Banquo’s next scene, a couple of partygoers left the revelries along with a musician, who was playing some kind of pipe. As we didn’t see the whole thing, I’ve no idea what that was meant to convey. Banquo’s chat with Fleance went well enough, and when Macbeth arrived I felt that Banquo wasn’t particularly suspicious of Macbeth’s intentions when he declared that he would “keep my bosom franchised and allegiance clear”. At first the dagger was made of light, shining through a gap in the wooden wall and forming an elongated dagger shape on the ground. Again, the rhythms of Macbeth’s speech were odd for this bit. The light dagger disappeared and a real one dangled mid-air in front of Macbeth as he commented on the “gouts of blood”, none of which were visible even in close-up. During the latter part of the speech, Macbeth started spinning round, no idea why; we saw this from above as I recall.

For the actual murder, normally done off stage, they had brought Duncan’s bed on to the candle end of the space, with the two grooms lying drunk in front of it. At the other end, the witches’ doors opened and they peered through, eager to see the murderous act take place. As Macbeth made to stab Duncan, the king awoke, sat up and turned to see Macbeth standing there. He held out his hand as if to touch Macbeth fondly on the cheek, but Macbeth drove the dagger in hard to kill him. Later on we also saw Lady Macbeth put the daggers in the grooms’ hands and smear their faces with blood, returning to Macbeth immediately afterwards to show him her bloody hands. This aspect was interesting, but again it was frustrating that we had to put up with the pictures given to us instead of making our own choices.

For the line “Whence is that knocking?”, Macbeth was hitting his hand against his chest. After their departure, the porter appeared above the end wall, though I wasn’t at all sure where he was at the time. The “farmer” was another inebriated individual who stuck his head above the wall, trying to get at the porter’s drink. The “equivocator” was a pair of legs which came up and were dangled over the side. The porter then came down to one of the witch doors for the “English tailor”, who stuck his head out of another door to be sick. By the time Macduff arrived to wake the king, the bed, body and grooms had been removed from sight, which seemed a little strange given the earlier staging; I would have expected the discovery of the body to be shown in the same way as the murders.

Macbeth’s grief at the death of Duncan seemed genuine at first, and his explanation of the murder of the grooms was quite believable. Lady Macbeth’s faint didn’t seem to be connected to Macbeth’s words particularly, unless she was simply trying to change the subject. The royal sons left as expected, and I have to admit that I found the performance a bit boring after the murder. Whether the energy dropped on stage or not I don’t know, but I started checking my watch a lot during this phase, which included the old man and Ross meeting Macduff. The old man and Ross were at the top of the wall, while Macduff was on the central strip.

During that conversation, the procession for Duncan’s funeral began to make its way on to the stage and down to the candle end. The king’s body was carried high with the rest of the remaining court followed it, and by the time Macduff left the stage the new king and queen had entered at the end of the procession. As they reached the candle end, Banquo appeared at the witches’ end to make his speech; they were straight into the next section as soon as he finished.

Macbeth was strangely stilted when talking to Banquo, especially when he asked the telling questions about how far Banquo was going to ride and whether Fleance was going as well, but this was understandable in the circumstances. When the murderers arrived, Macbeth sat on his throne to talk to them. When they agreed to do the murder, he took their hands and put them together as if administering an oath, before getting up and striding around while he gave them the details of the job. After dismissing them, he slumped back down on the throne and after a couple of lines more, threw his cloak over his head as if to sleep.

Lady Macbeth came on at the other end with the servant, and after she spoke her lines, Macbeth woke up and rejoined the scene. When Macbeth started his incantation – “Come, sealing night” – the three witches were reaching down over the wall, presumably to support his descent into evil. They were also present at the murder of Banquo, with all three peering through the one door to watch the event, and they even joined in; Banquo took a lot of killing. They may also have carried the dead body away.

For the feast, two tables were placed together in the middle of the space, and the empty stool was at one end. I don’t know how Banquo arrived the first time, but when he was told to go he left by walking straight through the table; i.e. the actors seated on each side pulled the two tables apart so he could walk between them. It may have looked good in the theatre, but it just looked silly on screen, given that the rest of the court aren’t supposed to be able to see the ghost. Banquo’s second appearance was on top of the wall where he could shake his gory locks to his heart’s content.

The three witches were now at the candle end of the stage, but with the candles all extinguished it was clear that evil was triumphant at this point. The witches seemed to be wearing half-masks for this scene – they may have done this throughout – and they spoke in little girl voices. A large sheet was placed in the centre of the space for the prophecies, and was held down by several actors who were lying mostly underneath it. They shook the sheet and the various apparitions appeared through a central hole to give their predictions. For the final prophecy, the sheet lifted as the stream of Banquo’s progeny processed along the stage and off, with Banquo following on behind.

The Macduff interlude was pretty short, with young Macduff being very good. Again the lady failed to take the good advice offered to her, and this time the murderers included Macbeth. The boy was stabbed and Lady Macduff’s neck was broken, and I felt they lingered on the nastiness a bit too long.

For the English scene, the light finally broke through again, shining through the stained glass windows at the candle end of the stage. Malcolm had a tendency to over-extend some of his words, such as “thooouuusand”. They walked up and down the space, with Macduff taking Malcolm by the shoulder as he attempted to reassure him he would make a good king, or even an OK king, or just a better-than-Macbeth king. There was so much walking up and down that some parts seemed very stagy, and I realised that the camera doesn’t always cover this sort of action well.

Lady Macbeth did her sleepwalking on top of the wall; thankfully she didn’t fall off. The doctor stated he would take notes of what she said, but never a pen or piece of paper did I see – cut the lines if you’re not going to do it, please. Her line “There’s knocking at the gate” was accompanied by her beating at her own breast, echoing a similar action by Macbeth earlier on.

By this time I was checking my watch: 10:20 p.m., much too long without an interval. But I gritted my teeth, wiggled as best I could in my seat to relieve the stiffness and kept going. For the moving of Birnam Forest, the soldiers carried screens with greenery attached, like willow withies. Macbeth killed young Siward easily, and Macduff picked up the dead man’s sword. Handy, because Macbeth also had two swords when he came back on for the final fight.

I have to say that it didn’t look very convincing to me. I know they’d done a lot of work already, and it’s probably tiring work in all that mud, but I would still expect a better show for the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff. I don’t know why the interval had been dropped, but if that was a directorial decision he’s got no one else to blame for feeling tired at the end of the performance, and they chose to use two swords instead of one, so suck it up. It looked very mechanical, with Kenneth Branagh in particular just mincing around and waving the swords about. Even so, he managed to get Macduff on the ground and only the bad news about Macduff’s birth changed the result to a narrow 1-0 win for the man from Fife.

He brought Macbeth’s head on in a bag at the end and threw it against the far wall – yucky but OK. For Malcolm’s final speech, he stood in the middle of the stage with the others in a circle round him. On “the grace of grace” he looked towards the holy end, and the final image was from above the stage, with Malcolm holding his sword up, cross-like, and the others crowding round him.

There was no way we felt like clapping at the end of this performance, knowing how far short of the real thing it had come. There were plenty of curtain calls in the theatre though, and some people in the cinema joined in, but on the whole our audience didn’t respond much. We stayed to the very end to see what happened and saw the credits roll through before leaving. We felt glad that we’d at least been able to see something of the production, but cheated by the way it had been presented which had minimised our enjoyment. One of the pleasures of attending the theatre for a live performance is the ability to choose for ourselves what we look at; this sort of screening removes that option, and while it gives a great close-up view of the actor’s faces, that’s not all that’s going on during a performance. It would have been nice to have seen the set properly before the start so that we could have known where the actors were in relation to one another, and I hope they can find some way to handle the sound requirements so that the actors aren’t SHOUTING ALL THE TIME. Perhaps the sound could be amplified within the venue to assist the live audience while giving us the benefit of the great vocal technique so many of our stage actors have. It’s something we may have to endure again for productions we just can’t get to, and we are grateful for the limited access this technique gives us, but there’s no way it can fully satisfy such theatre aficionados as ourselves.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

4 comments on “Macbeth NTL – July 2013

  1. Peter Serres says:

    Emma Freud was more effusive than usual. I assume she was under orders to issue a lot of adverts. The cheesy stuff about letting the actors feel the love was fairly high on the Nausea Scale. The performances generally were not remarkable. Branagh was OK as he reached the final despair and I felt that Ray Fearon gave a good rendition of Macduff in the England scene. I could not relate to the Lady and was NOT sympathetic when she got somebody or something tangled in her wig.

    As a (lapsed) C of E chap, I was instantly aware that the curved end of the church would have been where the altar candles were and therefore the other end was allocated to the baddies. Generally, this production did not rise to the expectations aroused by the hype.

    Sadly, neither did Othello at the NT, which I hope you will be covering in due course.

    • Thanks for your comments, Peter. I suspect some of the disappointment was down to the difficulty of trying to show live theatre on the big screen, which is clearly more of a problem than some would have us believe. It’s a funding issue, of course – the Arts Council wants more ‘ordinary’ people to have access to ‘elitist’ theatre, which only goes to show what ignorant snobs they must be. If they’d spent any time going to the theatre themselves they’d know that there are plenty of us ordinary folk going already.
      That’s enough of a rant for now. The NT Othello is already posted – June 2013. Enjoy.

  2. Karen says:

    Speaking as one who was lucky enough to see a performance at MIF and the live cinema broadcast, I would say that the cinema presentation was better than you might realise. Because of the traverse presentation of the ‘stage’ in the church what you could see depended a lot more on where you were sitting than might usually be the case. I was not sitting centrally or at the front and so whilst I got a good view of the witches and porter end, I couldn’t see much detail of the murder of Duncan at the other end. I was really impressed with the cinema presentation – I know that it can be a pain for the director to dictate what the audience gets to see, but on this occasion I think it was done well given the space constraints. And I should add that in the church, you could hear every word spoken, because wherever you were seated, you were really quite close to the action.

  3. Many thanks for this insight Karen. We didn’t appreciate how difficult that venue was for the live audience, but now we can count our blessings for the clarity of the cinema presentation.

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