The National Theatre Live is just a fantastic idea. It brings these quality productions to those of us living in far flung parts of the Country - and let's face it, for most us the expense involved in travelling to see these productions is simply too much. Getting to see it in your local cinema however, is much more convenient - and we see it live... not just a recorded version. These are live streamed, warts and all - and a live production always gives you a frisson of excitement that previously recorded events simply can't match.
"Macbeth" was the play we studied at school - more years ago than I care to remember - and I've always wanted to see a live version. At school, we watched a Thames Television production starring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench and I remember it being very dark visually...with everyone wearing black. The point being that it was very obviously a "play" whereas this National Theatre production starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston was much different. Even watching in the cinema, you felt involved - you were a part of it, the production just draws you in. The setting most definitely helped - using a deconsecrated church with an earth floor was a stroke of genius as most of the action took place in the aisle area you can see in the photo below with the audience seated either side.
The earth floor quickly turned into a quagmire after the first, very rainy battle scene but, far from being a distraction, it just added to the reality of the production. Even in the scenes set inside the castle, the quagmire floor just seemed perfect and, whilst the men were wearing boots, Alex Kingston had to squelch through it sometimes in bare feet. Hats off to The Kingston for making it appear as though she did this sort of thing every day of the week.
I understood more about Macbeth - both the play and the character - by watching this production than I have during numerous readings of the text. We weren't watching Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston. We were watching Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with their power-mad ambition and seeing the effect that killing Duncan had on each of them. Macbeth having to be urged to carry out the deed by his wife and then being consumed by torment and guilt afterwards and Lady Macbeth's initial steely resolve and determination that descended into madness and death. It's very strong stuff indeed.
To be fair, you couldn't fault ANY of the cast. They all seemed to inherently believe in their characters and, in fact, one of the most painful parts of the play concerned not Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, but Macduff, played by Ray Fearon. Upon hearing that his wife and children had been slaughtered on Macbeth's orders, he walked unsteadily the length of the aisle to the small altar area at the front. Dropping to his knees, he let out the most heartwrenching and painful screams you are ever likely to hear. For a few moments, you really felt as though you were intruding on this man's private grief.
Essentially though, this production belonged to Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston - as perfect a pair for these characters as you're ever likely to see. Alex Kingston was superb - squelching and running through the mud with that steely gaze of hers exhorting Branagh's Macbeth to "screw your courage to the sticking place". She played it beautifully - and it made Lady Macbeth's descent into madness all the more powerful. The sleepwalking scene with her talking whilst attempting to wash the non-existent blood from her hands was utterly entrancing - you simply could not look away. Thankfully, Lady Macbeth's death happened off-stage because I'm not sure - given the sheer intensity of the production - whether I could have coped with it.
What can I say about Kenneth Branagh that hasn't already been said numerous times? Not a lot probably but I will say that I honestly believe that Kenneth Branagh understands Shakespeare's texts like no other. More than that, he also manages to transmit that understanding to the rest of us without changing one single word. It's in his delivery, his manner - in this production, he simply IS Macbeth. It's all real - his guilt, his torment and that single tear mid-rant after learning that his wife had killed herself. It's all in the detail - and Kenneth Branagh has that nailed.
It was just a perfect production. Two and a half hours that simply zipped by and those of us in the cinema were captivated. We weren't silent - we were involved. We laughed and gasped - we were with those characters from beginning to end. Thank you so much to everyone involved - especially to National Theatre Live for giving us the opportunity to see this fantastic production.
"Macbeth" will be screened internationally and there are also "Encore" screenings in the UK. Check National Theatre Live for details.