Review Roundup: Kenneth Branagh's MACBETH Opens at Manchester International Festival

Shakespeare's tragedy MACBETH opened at Manchester International Festival on July 4th, 2013. Alongside Kenneth Branagh in the title role and Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth, former Royal Shakespeare Company members Jimmy Yuill and John Shrapnel played Banquo and Duncan.

The cast also features Alexander Vlahos (Mordred in BBC's Merlin) as Malcolm, Norman Bowman (Finding Neverland; Guys & Dolls West End) as Ross, Ray Fearon (Coronation Street; RSC Othello) as Macduff and Rosalie Craig (NT Shed Table; Finding Neverland) as Lady Macduff. The weird sisters are played by Laura Elsworthy (The Kitchen Sink), Anjana Vasan (RSC Much Ado About Nothing) and Charlie Cameron (The Addicted).

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph: While the evening, which hurtles by in little over two hours, brilliantly captures the battle-hardened nature of the world Macbeth inhabits, Branagh, a rugged 52, shows us the vestigial civilisation beneath the martial exterior. He is first full of amicable disbelief, paces alone in breathless cogitation, falters before the act of betrayal - here bloodily shown on the altar itself, snuffing out surrounding candles - and becomes more unhinged and volatile as events are set in unstoppable motion. Just as it becomes impossible for him to discern where his inner perturbations end and the outer nightmare begins, so it's fiendishly hard too to establish where the power of his performance, sensationally assured in its vocal command, ends and the rest of the ensemble's valiant labours take over. Everything seems of an equally potent, atmospheric piece - and Branagh is expertly matched by Alex Kingston as a goading Lady Macbeth whose fortitude finally succumbs to a delirium that answers his own.

Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail: What a magnificent actor Sir Ken is. Why on earth does he not share his talent more? The Shakespeare pours out of him, so easy to understand, so fluent...The acting is classical, though the accents are uneven. I could have done with more Scots. A couple of Mancunians slip in... Directors Sir Ken and Rob Ashford turn in a pacy, pulsating production, but the witches are a bit silly and the sleepwalking scene is overdone. There is a good sprinkling of older actors, with orotund John Shrapnel as Duncan and Jimmy Yuill as Banquo.

Deanna Delamotta, Manchester Evening News: Branagh, who co-directed with Rob Ashford, doesn't go for a Scottish accent and his main man is conveyed initially as a fairly ordinary middle-aged sort whose rapid transition to fidgety, murderous villain is prompted by the possibility of power suggested to him by the 'weird sisters' - deliciously deranged and extremely bendy, and egged on by his wife played by Alex Kingston. This descent is credible (much of the plot isn't, in today's money) because of Branagh's thoughtful portrayal. He doesn't over-sell the big speeches. In contrast Kingston, an established thespian...camps it up a tad as Lady Macbeth. And her hand-washing is rather extravagant, yet she is very watchable. Jimmy Yuill's Banquo is gripping and Ray Fearon's rendition of Macduff is stirring stuff...Fearon's a mesmerising actor who wowed audiences at the Lowry in Julius Caesar last year and does it again for MIF as Macduff.

Michael Billington, The Guardian: This is more like it. After a lightweight Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe, we now get a production that gets closer to the heart of the play's mystery. Staged in a deconsecrated Victorian church for the ManchesterInternational Festival, it is co-directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh and boasts a performance by the latter that reminds us what an intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor he is...But what I admire about Branagh is that he is not afraid to do a spot of old-fashioned acting. The highest compliment I can pay him is that at times he evoked golden memories of Olivier in the role.

Kate Bassett, The Independent: Rather than being reported, the play's opening war is waged before us, a mass of clanging swords under pouring rain...Certainly, this production has dramatic thrills...And yet the overall effect is curiously dull. This Macbeth feels as if it is bidding to be turned into a middlebrow movie with goth-horror appeal, some gallimaufry of Rob Roy and The Exorcist. With honorable exceptions - including John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill, both sturdy as Duncan and Banquo - much of the acting is lame or hammy. Alex Kingston's Lady Macbeth, alas, borders on the embarrassing, acting vampish with no conviction...Though it may strike some as great classical acting, [Branagh's] performance is a curate's egg, in truth. He is often very good, looks the part, understands the psychology, delivers Shakespeare's verse with a fluidity that sounds fresh. But then there'll be an affected pause, a milked vowel ("Owwwwwt brief candle"), a moment so mannered you'd think you were watching Edmund Kean.

Libby Purves, The Times: It's a traditional "Macbeth" with draggled plaids and broadswords, smoke and sacrilege and filth. Kenneth Branagh, returning to the Shakespearean stage after an 11-year break as star and co-director (with Rob Ashford) sets his Festival centerpiece in a deconsecrated bRick Church, the altar end aflame with a hundred candles and the other a wooden wall breaking into arches as ragged witches confront this holy peace. 4 out of 5 stars

Matt Wolf, TheArtsDesk.com: Talk about absence making the heart grow fonder! I'm referring not simply to the news value of Kenneth Branagh making one of his comparatively rare returns to the theatre, this from an actor (now a knight) who in his early years popped up regularly on stage. But the more important reawakening of affection is the palpable one expressed between this protean talent and Shakespeare, his long-standing playwright of choice. There's much to admire in the Manchester International Festival Macbeth staged in a deconsecrated church and with Branagh as both co-director and star, but nothing more so than the vividly communicated sense of a love affair renewed that for all this play's darkening fury sweeps an audience up into its heady embrace.

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