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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Maccers at the National

Or: From muck comes....further muck

With his new production of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, Kenneth Branagh swaggers back to claim the title of most innovative, heart-sounding and beloved classical english actor. It’s a bold gauntlet he throws down as he has not had any connection to the Bards work, either on the stage or behind, for over a decade.

And it shows. O how it shows.

I might as well cry “O what a noble mind is here o’rethrone”. It’s almost painful to see a childhood idle, Shakespeare’s Darling of the 90’s charge back so boldly into the ring and so flatly on his face. Was this the mouth that so chewed the words of Benedict and Hal, who now gluts on that most daring and most d*mned of men, the Thane of Glams? On and on and on he babbles leaving no pause for consideration or change, no swell of remorse nor viciousness, no pricks of violent sarcastic humor that beg to be hurled at our ears, nothing but uncomprehending noise. Good G-d! A fourteen year old on a cardboard stage could do better. It’s as muddy as the ground he treads upon.

Did I not mention the mud? The stage is essentially a mud-field. Branagh and his collaborator Rob Ashford have staged their travesty in a deconsecrated church in Manchester, which would be an excellent and apt space to stage a play about redemption and damnation if they hadn’t filled the Nave ankle deep with mud. Churned up by the constant running (all they ever do this production is run),and watered down by blood, bile and rain (yes, they staged a rain storm inside. It was quite impressive to see but miserable to sit through) it must give a good depiction of what it was to be in Scotland a thousand years ago where life was damp, unwholesome, and short.

This “nasty sty” is the school yard for all sorts of childish performances which surpass even Branagh’s failure for immaturity. Alex Kingston, the saucy buccaneer beloved of the BBC, takes on the infamous Lady M into her hands and drops her like your best china bowl. In all my years I’ve never seen a professional, and admirably well-heeled, actress grasp at lines so often. Just like her lord she bubbles and babbles on, with the added indignity of, often under guise of a pause for breath, visibly skittering about to find the right word to shout out. Also like her husband, she makes no discoveries nor growth in her character her manner only changes three times: from gleeful, to sad, to demonic. Dashing back and forth like a school girl the eponymous “Lady M” braids bouncing like pig tails, she makes up for lack of clarity by shouting.

The whole cast is guilty of this inexplicable belief that louder is clearer, each striving to be more strident than the rest. Macduff (Ray Fearon) takes the prize for most sustained, most bone rattling call: but though he uses it to great effect he hardly uses anything else. The rest descend from Fearon’s commitment into various states of drivel, until we find the Three Weird Sisters at the bottom, each caked in clay, given to wide eyes and over mouthing, and committing such butcheries of common pronunciation you would have thought someone had constructed three Kate Bush Golems. But even below them stands insolent Malcolm (who’s actor, for pity, I will not name): he of the flat, cheerful monotone and representative hand gestures and those inexplicably sustained vowels ( ex: “Poor country, I think it bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeds! or “Have I offer of goodly thoooooooouuuuuuuusands). I am the first to concede that Malcolm is a deuced tricky part to play, but this particular Malcolm's choices, or lack of them, rendered the heir apparent, the only possible redemptive figure, into nothing but an object of ridicule and scorn. And not even intentionally at that.

I suppose that the overall sweep of the production, and certainly the major decisions that followed the story were wise and true, and might have made up for even the sloppy acting. But Minerva lives in the Minutia, and those brilliant ideas dissolved in practice like snow in april.

Here follows a short list of ideas used and ways in which they were undone, horribly.

1. If you want to undercut the simplistic “Ambition is evil” message of the play and instead play the battle in the soul to choose between nobler and viler instinct, than its a really good idea to set your production in a church. It’s not so good to physicalize the moral battle by having your actors, when they consider good, to look at the candle laden alter and, when they consider evil, to look the other way at...a blank wall. It’s underwhelming.

2. If you want to show us that Lord and Lady M love each other, that their evil deeds are born from a desire to make the other happy and glorious that is a really smart move. What’s not so smart is to show this deep mutual affection by having them grope each other in very explicit ways, in every. single. scene. in which they appear together. It’s tasteless and cheap.

3. If, at the climax of your show you have MacB standing over a disarmed Macduff ready to kebab him, and Macduff launches the “from mothers wound untimely ripped” ringer, don’t have MacB just drop his sword and wander off. It’s just....wrong.

4. If you are going to stage the murder of Duncan, a sketchy maneuver in the first place, with the unfortunate and soused guards lying at the foot of the royal bed, don’t have them pop up like sock puppets, cry “Amen” and “G-d bless us” and fall back to sleep while Duncan is in his death throws.

5. if you’re going to murder Banquo in the middle of the nave it’s a good idea to have the murders come at him on all sides. Not so wise is to have your assassins slam him against all four of the audience stalls like they were tackling a prodigiously large moth.

6. If your playing Banquo and your ghost has just shown up at the feast, awkward party gestures are probably not the appropriate tactic for striking fear and guilt into the heart of your killer. 7. If you are Lady Macduff (Rosaline Craig) and her killer (Steven Cree): it is perfectly alright to do the poor creature in by a credible snapped neck. It is not alright, if you are the lady, to wobble about after your neck is snapped like a well dressed nine pin, nor, if you are the killer, to restrain and support your victim/corps by clapping on to two vary inappropriate hand holds.

I could go on, dear reader, and list the grotesque failings, the moments which provoked bitter laughter, affrontment and disgust in me. But let me address the one redemptive moment. Branagh did touch a shade of his former glory in the poetic hight of this deep and brutal story: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. When told his beloved wife had taken her own life, MacB, for the first time in what might have been all evening, paused. Then he started in on that strange little eulogy, and halfway through it dawned on him what a life he and her and thrown away, and how for however long he had to live he would have to bare his mistakes without her. Then the tears and the mucous and the spittle came thick and fast, cascading down his face to the muddy floor, as the words were mauled, not by speed and inept handling, but by real grief. It was lost again in more mumbling and ill-thought-out actions five minutes later but that two and a half minutes of gold, almost made the whole miserable affair worth it.

A parting thought: I’ve heard that this production is being hailed as a “landmark” of British theater. Though I applaud its innovation and the big picture questions behind it I cannot help but hope that that landmark is one future Maccers will point to and say “do not go that way”.

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