Watching the performance of a live event on a movie screen has it's drawbacks, but for the most part, it's not just the next best thing to being there, it's the only thing. That's certainly the case for the Ashford-Branagh "Macbeth" that gets its second of two broadcasts at the SouthSide Works Cinema on Wednesday.
The filmed production starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston ran as part of the Manchester International Festival July 4-21 at the decommissioned St. Peter's Church in Ancoats, Manchester, and is being beamed to the States as part of the National Theatre Live series. Before the starry team makes its way to New York's Park Avenue Armory in June, American audiences have a chance to get a feel for what it might have been like to be inside the apparently sweltering church in Manchester, where actors were soaked by (indoor) rain and sweat and audience members were using programs as fans.
One thing those actual live audiences don't have the benefit of is the behind-the-scenes glimpses and interviews that run before the NLT broadcasts. For "Macbeth," host NTL Emma Freud (Sigmund's great-granddaughter) conducted an interview with co-director Rob Ashford, the Point Park graduate, Tony and Emmy winner and an associate director of London's Donmar theater. Freud tells us that the original run of the play sold out in nine minutes, and Ashford talks about the ease with which he and Branagh worked, including the decision to use a found space. Once they landed on a church setting, London rehearsals were also conducted in a church. A play about what happens to good people who chose an evil course, from which there is no turning back, has resonance in a house of faith, he said.
The title role, which has recently attracted Ethan Hawke and Alan Cumming in New York versions and James McAvoy in London, can be a touchstone in any actor's career — even a career so steeped in Shakespearean roles as Branagh's is.
At least to this American, Shakespeare's words sound so natural coming from Branagh, it's as if he was born to keep the Bard alive and more importantly, understood by modern audiences. He has directed or starred in half a dozen movie adaptations of Shakespeare and was equally at home portraying Franklin Roosevelt ("Warm Springs") as Laurence Olivier ("My Week With Marilyn"), the latter one of a handful of Oscar nominations. He also directed the first "Thor" film and played the foppish Gilderoy Lockhart in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
He brings all of those talents to the table in "Macbeth," a war hero who commits murder to ascend the throne and grows madder with each murderous act. As his wife and co-conspirator, Alex Kingston seems to be in a constant frantic state, first to push her husband to treason, then to cover his growing madness, then finally when she, too, is pushed over the edge by guilt.
Unlike the other recent versions, this "Macbeth" stays within the parameters of Shakespeare's version of the times, raw and restless and primal — although the staging has a bit of a Medieval Times vibe, especially when there is swordplay. And no one has to report the gory details of King Duncan's death — his and most of the bloody killings occur in full view of the audience on the unorthodox set.
The audience is seated on either side of what seems to be a muddy alley, but the substance is a bit of a wonder because footing doesn't seem to be a problem. On one end is a staging area, making the whole seem key-shaped, with the backdrop lined with an altar of candles and downstage grates that spit fire. The other end is a high wall with a ledge for a "Who goes there?" gate and a guilt-ridden night-walker like Lady Macbeth. The Three Weird Sisters whose prophecies ignite Macbeth's crime spree emerge from doors in the wall, muddied and murky and barely understandable in their high-pitched witchy whine, my least favorite vocal characterizations in the play.
The UK Telegraph declared the production "a thrilling and cinematically fluid production of Macbeth ... a triumph for Kenneth Branagh" in a five-star review. "Fast, furious and unstoppable … this Macbeth [knocks] the breath out of everyone, audience included," The New York Times raved.
In person, I'm sure the whole was a tense trial of decision-making about which way to turn your head and when. For instance, here must have been many audience members who saw the back of Branagh's head as the anguished Macbeth struts and frets after losing his lady, but the movie-theater audience saw it all in close-up.
There's the rub about seeing a play as a movie — you can't judge it as a live-theater audience member, not with a variety of camera angles directing your vision. As a movie experience, it's a whole different beast, one perhaps less raw and primal than the creative team intended. In person, it's easier to overlook Kingston's curly locks getting caught momentarily in a buckle — you'd probably miss it, depending on where you were sitting — but in the camera's unblinking eye, it becomes a quick feat of untangling and soldiering on.
No complaints, though, about audiences from coast to coast being able to see a production with such great pedigree and sense of purpose, one that despite traveling from London to New York might never go beyond those borders.
Well, one small complaint: There was no intermission. OK, I've seen longer movies with no intermission; this was 2 1/2 hours, including the introductions and interviews. There were breaks at previous NLT shows I've attended — two viewings of "Frankenstein" (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching lead roles), "Hamlet" with Rory Kinnear and the Donmar Warehouse production of Derek Jacobi's "King Lear."
As my colleague Maria Sciullo and I left the theater after Sunday's 11 a.m. screening, we couldn't help but notice that the movie showing next in the auditorium was listed as "Jackass" -- which Maria pointed out was a word not unfamiliar to Shakespeare. Wish I'd said that.
I'll be thinking of "Macbeth" tonight when I attend a screening of "Thor 2," the sequel to one of my favorite Marvel superhero films as directed by Branagh, and remembering the word everyone -- including the director -- used to describe it at a Comic-Con panel a few years back: