Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth: The Limits of Desire and Dis-ease

A slightly different version was published on The Student Journals website in August, and is available here

Kenneth Branagh’s performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in “The Scottish Play”, as it is superstitiously referred to, was broadcast live on 20th July in cinemas nationwide. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see this performance, just before tickets sold out both at the live venue and in cinema.

The play opened in the midst of battle, accompanied by an unforgiving rain shower, drenching all the actors and probably the front row of the live audience. The stage floor was covered with a thick layer of mud, which became increasingly slippery and malleable in the downpour – I was quite happy to be watching in the cinema, as the smell must have been incredibly pungent! This stench would have intentionally increased the live audience’s uneasy involvement in the world of the play, creating quite a different experience from watching it on the big screen.

The mud made the actresses’ dresses dirty, as though to indicate a contamination to virtue and honour in the increasingly soiled and rotting ‘body’ of the Scottish kingdom. Indeed, in this play, everything becomes tainted and sick. As well as the noticeable impact on clothing, the mud also affected the way the entire cast moved, indicating the physical effort with which they positioned themselves (literally and metaphorically) in their social spheres and interacted with one another. 

Other technological tricks included daggers being convincingly suspended in mid-air and flames appearing round the stage’s raised platform at extreme demonic moments. The lighting and sound effects were also highly effective. Despite the dramatic and gruelling experiences created by these different techniques, I was glad there was not an interval because this would certainly have spoilt the intensity of the performance and allowed the audience to escape from the clutches of the witches’ (and Macbeth’s) evil. An interval would have also given the audience time to think and reflect, which is not what Branagh wanted. He admitted on the BBC Breakfast show that ‘things happen in this play because people don’t have time to think’ and so wanted the audience to have a similar experience.

The witches were certainly depicted as evil supernatural beings. In their first scene they appeared from coffin-like compartments with muddy faces and wild hair, almost camouflaging in with the mud apart from their wide, white eyes. This contorted, supernatural quality contrasted the previous frighteningly naturalistic battle scene with which the performance opens.

The co-director, Rob Ashford, was interviewed prior to the start of the play for all those watching in cinema. He stated that using a consecrated church in Manchester as the ‘theatre’ indicated a specific type of goodness that gave a dramatic juxtaposition to depiction of evil within the play. I felt this was best encapsulated by the portrayal of the dagger in the famous ‘is this a dagger which I see before me?’ scene. This was because a shaft of light projected all the way across the floor in order to represent the outline of a dagger could also be mistaken for the religious cross. The duality of this image entangled violence and death with both redemptive religion and the suffering of Christ.

Another effective outcome of staging ‘Macbeth’ in the church was that the long, narrow space down the middle of the building created the illusion of events being witnessed from a panoramic and almost omniscient viewpoint. In this way, every inch of the Scottish state was put up for scrutiny and made to ‘perform’. The size, shape and nature of the stage also lent itself to the demands of the camera allowing for many actual panoramic and close up shots to be possible. This made me think that it could be better (or just as vivid an experience) to watch this performance on the screen than actually in the church itself. It is remarkable that there can be two such separate experiences of the same play.

There were many candles in the far end of the church on the raised altar. They slowly went out as the performance proceeded due to their own natural nature. Yet it was as though they were responding to the evil and twisted desire that invaded the world of the Macbeth.

Alex Kingston played Lady Macbeth as a strong and hard woman, but one that also had a great capability for love. In the Macbeths’ first scenes together, great sexual tension and love collided. Branagh’s Macbeth performed a highly masculine and virile identity, which of course he loses as the play progresses. This located his fall as both a personal and social one. It was heavily concerned with the problems and pitfalls of simultaneously performing a socially acknowledged identity and attempting to satisfy hidden, individual desires.

The Macbeths’ love for one another was interlaced with characteristic teasing between lovers. The couple constantly tested the depth of their love. Lady Macbeth used this playfulness to her advantage when persuading Macbeth to kill the king by seducing him with caressing touches. This uncomfortably intertwined sex and death. Therefore, although the Macbeths’ love for each other was evident, we were made aware of its susceptibility to manipulation and deceit in the face of desire for a wider social power. This is just one of many examples of the couple taking things too far. It also suggested Macbeth was easily seduced by the idea of his own (sexual) power.

The directors chose to show events on stage that an audience watching ‘Macbeth’ does not usually see or know about directly. In particular, the initial battle where Macbeth wins glory and the killing of King Duncan occur off-stage in the play-text but were prominently positioned on-stage in this performance. This revealing of the ‘unknown’ and ‘unseen’ in Branagh’s version links to ideas behind the portrayal of evil within the play. For example, although we do see the witches – and therefore arguably the source of evil – the sight of these demonic figures and the act of ‘seeing’ itself do not bring forth any answers or conclusions to the events Macbeth experiences and subsequently questions.

This tension between ‘seeing’ and understanding resonates with the chilling interaction between Macbeth and the witches when they exchange the following:

“How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is’t you do?”

“A deed without a name”

Although Macbeth can see the witches performing their disturbing ritualistic movements and songs, he cannot know or classify what it is they are doing. Their actions are so entrenched in evil that they do not make sense to human cognitive faculties. This could also be true of Macbeth’s own murderous actions. For example, after killing the king he memorably calls out “I am afraid to think what I have done!”. As he cannot fully comprehend what he has done it constantly plagues him, inducing his ‘dis-eased’ mind.

In accordance with one of Macbeth’s most memorable soliloquies where he states, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage […] / Signifying nothing”, the lack of processing what one sees results in events – and even the witches themselves – lacking meaning. Indeed, throughout the play we question whether the witches’ prophecy does impact upon Macbeth’s motivations or if his desires initiating events are just created by his own mortal imagination and so come from within himself. This soliloquy also suggests Macbeth laments the act of trying to desperately imitate some sort of solid truth or spectacle (such as an identity, relationship, or sense of what is right) because he feels it ultimately does not – or cannot – exist in the face of the evil and artificially constructed nature of humanity and human life.

Branagh is careful to pronounce ‘diseased mind’ as ‘dis-eased’ mind throughout the play. The notion of the ‘dis-eased mind’ supports the idea that Macbeth’s pains and downfall originates from within himself – it is a play about the human mind and its susceptibility to self-destructive desire.

It is interesting that we do not see Macbeth’s death but do see Duncan’s murder. This, I feel, creates more sympathy for Duncan than for the play’s protagonist as well as raising questions about how heroically Macbeth died, which emphasizes and echoes the motifs of asking questions and of not knowing. On the other hand, Macbeth leaves the stage at possibly his most heroic moment; ready to fight to the death after acknowledging his own limitations and realising he cannot escape his fate.

Towards the end, Malcolm is clearly portrayed as being no better than Macbeth. The evil within his character is unnervingly illustrated in the long scene with MacDuff where he admits to his ‘dark desires’, ultimately that of rape. In this way, we see that everyone in the play has the potential to take things too far – and most do. The state has been pushed to destruction and cannot return to what it was before Macbeth privileged his impulse for power.

Never has there been a more worthy performance to receive a standing ovation as this version of ‘Macbeth’ produced from the entire audience at the Manchester church. There will surely be repeated screenings of this fantastic production. I am already eager to see it again.

 

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