Arguably the most hotly-anticipated jewel in the Manchester International Festival’s crown, Macbeth, starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role and jointly directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, sold out in a mere nine minutes when tickets were released back in January, even before the venue for the production had been announced.

As it turns out, it’s staged at St Peter’s, a deconsecrated church in the central Manchester former industrial district of Ancoats. The audience are required to collect their tickets from another location beforehand so they can be assigned a ‘clan’ (a slightly twee gimmick that I couldn’t really embrace) and escorted in groups to St Peter’s itself.

The venue makes for some imaginative staging that, along with the sheer pace of the production (two hours, no interval, no scene changes) means it’s impossible for the audience to lose focus, with actors appearing at opposite ends of the long, narrow performance space and no audience member more than a few feet from the action. Those in the front row must lean back to avoid the swords – this is an intense experience, not made more comfortable by the extreme heat on a summer’s night and the cramped, bench-style seating. Rain drives down on to an earth-covered stage during the opening battle scene – the battle that is only reported in the text actually takes place before our eyes, sparks literally flying from the soldiers’ swords – and the set becomes a muddy, trench-like swamp for the duration of the production, its effect on the actors’ costumes a visual metaphor for the contaminating effects of ambition and power.

Branagh himself is an utterly credible Macbeth, by turns buoyantly triumphant and plagued by crippling doubts as he begins a descent into tyranny and paranoia. He’s also convincingly genial in the presence of Duncan, even charming, making the King’s misplaced trust in him uncomfortably convincing. Branagh’s delivery is often conversational, even low-key, but always fresh and never predictable. I know Macbeth perhaps better than any other work of literature, and yet I felt as if I was hearing Macbeth’s lines for the first time, and the small performance space and audience proximity allows us to really appreciate of the subtleties of Branagh’s performance.

Alex Kingston, brilliantly cast as Lady Macbeth, is also impressive and although it’s fair to say hers is a more extravagant performance than Branagh’s, it stops thankfully just short of hamminess in some key moments. The supporting cast is universally excellent too, so much so that it’s hard to pick a single stand-out performance, but Ray Fearon’s Macduff and Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm, the weight of responsibility lying heavy on his youthful shoulders, deserve a special mention.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite work for me in this version of Macbeth, it’s the Three Witches. Dark, ragged creatures, more akin to demonic imps or banshees, they deliver their lines in jarring, gulping tones to awkward staccato rhythms. I can’t fault the actors’ skill, but I always find the Witches more convincing (and more chilling) within the context of the play if they’re more recognisably human, less obviously supernatural. Moreover, the lines the Witches speak are perhaps the most important in the play, and it seems risky to put the emphasis on style rather than content here.

This is, however, a tiny gripe. Overall, this is a stunning production, raw, visceral and stripped down to (literally) earthy basics, grubby, sweaty and exhausting in the best of ways. Fantastic stuff, and absolutely worth the hype.

Joanne Shepard

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