Branagh’s mad Macbeth in ‘Madchester’

Kenneth Branagh - back with a brilliant Macbeth

Kenneth Branagh – back with a brilliant Macbeth

Branagh’s mad Macbeth in ‘Madchester‘ was some return after more than a decade away from Shakespeare used his sword and the text with relish (a bit too much relish for one actor apparently).

Presented in a deconsecrated church in Ancoats, Manchester, for the Manchester International Festival, the nave provided more of a wooden oblong rather than the classic ‘wooden O’ – and all the more effective for that .

The audience, seated on benches either side after being walked there by the festival volunteers, were perched as for a medieval joust.

That gave us an extremely close-up and personal view of the opening battle scene as quite cool refreshing ‘rain’ poured down from the roof (quite good after the bright sunshine Manchester was bathed in) and sparks flew from clashing swords .

Beneath the actors’ feet the mud got wetter and an earthy smell permeated the building.

My youngest daughter, Susie, thought the direction and choreography produced an action film effect and even thought she saw real blood on one of the actor’s heads.

She was right – and it has now been confirmed that one of the actors was hurt -

However, in no way did it detract from the delivery of the poetry of the text – it helped underscore the desperation and dark ambition of Alex Kingston‘s Lady Macbeth to hit the heights of the Scottish  Royal Family  and the rapidly unhinging Branagh Macbeth.

A bloody Banquo’s ghost and a hugely impressive McDuff – almost as unhinged as Macbeth when he learns that his children, wife and household have been murdered on Macbeth’s orders.

I thought the spittle effect accompanying the actors’ delivery at The Swan Theatre in Stratford was pretty special – but nothing compared to Branagh.

He breathed his lines inches away (we were on the front row).He madly slatted mud about (we copped for some but not as much as the lady next door).
He also illuminated the dark with the sparks from swordplay.

Not any old mud - this is Kenneth Branagh mud

Not any old mud – this is Kenneth Branagh mud

Blazing flames sent heat searing down the space from the candlelit ‘altar’ end to our ‘dark’ end where the super-Goth witches literally hung out of the wooden walls to taunt all and sundry.

The soldout production cost an eye-watering £65 a ticket (good job it was a special event/present).

However, to be fair, this was brilliant stuff and on Saturday 20 July a big screen relay could be seen for £8 in the open air at the NCP Bridgewater Hall car park, Little Peter Street, Manchester, M15 4PS (8.30pm). People could take drinks and picnics, blankets and cushions but there were no seats and the usual health warning about the Manchester weather applied.

It is was also shown at some cinemas nationwide before being prepared for a trip over the pond to the US.

The Manchester International Festival programme

The Manchester International Festival programme

The Manchester festival, which also celebrates music, the spoken word, dance, food and drink, seems a fantastic way of showcasing the arts and arts venues and sets you thinking about some places have big thriving city or town-wide arts festivals and some having none.

Birmingham and Manchester do and smaller places such as Lichfield and Codsall (a large village near Wolverhampton) also have them but others do not – such as Wolverhampton.

It has just had its City Show in West Park which has all sorts of entertainment and it has some great venues such as the Civic Halls and Grand Theatre hosting tremendous shows and acts but there is no city-wide multi-arts event.

Perhaps it has something to do with size, resources and drivers. Drivers – people with the time, resources, determination and ability to make it happen may be the most important in a place which does not have that kind of history.

Manchester is a much bigger place and has massive cultural and artistic foundations to build on (I remember being totally enthralled when I was taken to see the Halle Orchestra perform when I was still at school and attending the Commonwealth Games more recently).

When I was working in Liverpool I couldn’t work out why my colleague Tony Wilson kept wanting to nip back to Manchester at every opportunity instead of coming to play football or watch Liverpool/Everton.

Innis & Gunn beer

Innis & Gunn beer

Of course he was a Manchester United fan but he was also working up to building on those foundations setting up Factory Records, The Hacienda, Dry Bar (where I was able to prepare for ‘The Scottish Play’ with some excellent oak-aged Edinburgh Innis & Gunn ale – also magically available in the 63 Degrees Restaurant after) and all those other ‘Madchester’ things.

Wall inside Dry Bar, Manchester, detailing how it was set up to mimic those in Barcelona etc

Wall inside Dry Bar, Manchester, detailing how it was set up to mimic those in Barcelona etc

Wolverhampton has some really good venues/potential venues (the city’s Central Youth Theatre have pioneered international productions in them), a fantastic array of talented people still working the area as well as others who have gone on to ‘greater’ things elsewhere.

Perhaps the city falls between the stools of not being a a big city or a smaller town/village. An arts festival might still be worth giving a whirl to showcase the venues/potential venues and the talent here and elsewhere.

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