Ane Brun at Oran Mor in December was just fabulous. She’s grown from an obscure Norwegian folk singer into a sensation. She gathers a top notch band around her, most notably bassist Dan Berglund, of the tragically disbanded Esbjörn Svensson Trio; my pal Ian’s a fan of theirs and suspects most of the band may be Berglund’s new group. This is a band that can play anything with consummate ease.
Brun has been updating her catalogue over the last few years, so that even oldies like ‘To Let Myself Go’ sound totally fresh. Once more, there’s enough percussion onstage to rearrange kidneys, and it pounds out the foundations of what she does impeccably; as ever, ‘Worship’ and ‘Do You Remember’ are thumping highlights. The stuff from her new album ‘When I’m Free’ – which has garnered mixed reviews – is slick and expansive, though the whole doesn’t quite get me as excited as ‘It All Starts With One’, underlined by the brilliant and habitual finale, ‘Undertow’. However, there are real gems in there, especially for me the sensuously drum-driven ‘Directions’. She’s incapable of disappointing.
However, gig of the year goes to a half-Norwegian lass, Nadine Shah, at King Tut’s in April. An iceberg when she’s singing, she’s a hoot when she’s interacting with the audience, and takes no prisoners. After ‘Stealing Cars’, I can’t resist and burst out a ‘that’s just beautiful.’ She’s momentarily touched, and says ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Raymond,’ I reply. ‘Daft name’ she says, quite rightly. Brilliant musician, cool, cool woman.
I was very happy to see an old hero of mine, the legendary Bruce Cockburn in October; one brilliant guitarist with a beautiful voice and a line in songwriting that is fiercely passionate about justice and humanity. An activist for decades, anyone who advocates bringing down marauding Guatemalan government helicopters with a rocket launcher can’t be all that bad in my book…
Great to see my pal Jill Brown supporting at King Tut’s, and the headline act, Polly and the Billet Doux were a bit of a revelation; lead guitarist Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen may well be one of the best live guitarists I’ve seen since… like… ever. Jill is headlining a sell-out Tut’s in January; it’s well deserved for someone who works so hard on her music.
And it was also good to see Pokey LaFarge again at The Art School. After the debacle of a horrendous audience in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, this was a riot, with a crowd that was into him and willing to give him the space to build a relationship, and everyone, including LaFarge, has a ball. Once more, the musicianship was incredible, especially from the genius of Ryan Koenig on harmonica. Watch them here and marvel…
As for theatre – some good uns, including Benny Cummerbund as the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen. But cream of the crop was undoubtedly ‘Lanark’ at the Citz. It’s a novel I like and recognise the importance of in the Scottish canon, but I’m not the obsessive devotee I know some are. But this is astonishing and confirms David Greig as one of the world’s best playwrights. Sandy Grierson is immense in the title role (he has previous form with Greig, playing Malcolm in Dunsinane a couple of years back); self-absorbed, lost, manipulative and manipulated, he comes across as a true oddity. Direction and set design are amazing too. At over three hours, I wasn’t tempted to nod off once, which is a real feat on a work night these days. Stunning.
I’ve stopped blogging reviews of gigs I go to – so much effort – but in the spirit of reminding myself of where I’ve been and what I’ve done so that I can remind myself in the nursing home where I was in my youth (!), here’s what I’ve been up to so far this year.
Prides, Liquid Room, 7/2/15: Prides were one of my favourite discoveries in 2014. Once more, their slick electro-pop is brilliant. Big, big anthems and a heaving, appreciative crowd. A great night out!
‘Love is Strange’ , GFT, 15/2/15: Yes it’s a bit contrived, idealistic and features unnecessary skateboarding – but ‘Love is Strange’ is quite beautiful. The quiet dignity and unshakability of the love between Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) is poignant and uplifting. Their tragedy is ordinary and hateful and heart-breaking. Loved it.
Rally & Broad, Stereo, 22/2/15: Excellent stuff curated by Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum. Top marks go to Harry Stiles for redefining Scots language, Rose Ruane for redefining everything, Genessee for the most beautiful cover of ‘Teardrops’ I’ve ever heard and The Jellyman’s Daughter for some of the best harmonies since The Civil Wars.
Twelve Angry Men, 28/2/15: Some hammy moments and some dodgy American accents, but still a wonderfully plotted classic of 1950s liberal drama. Tom Conti plays Tom Conti really well.
Coves, Nice-n-Sleazy, 8/3/15: mmm… took a chance, let down immensely. The band is okay, the lead singer is okay – but the mix doesn’t work. Soft pop vocals are lost in a grunge backdrop – I’m always suspicious of a girl in an LBD fronting a double denim clad band. We bail early…
Graham Fulton Book Launch, 14/3/15: yet more fantastic stuff from one of my favourite poets; ye cannae get enough of Graham Fulton. Check out Photographing Ghosts – it’s brilliant!
Glasgow Orchestral Society, 23/3/15, Royal Conservatoire: lovely programme including Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. A stunning young conductor and violin soloist playing with a damned fine amateur orchestra, including my pal Lynsey.
Sofar Edinburgh, 1/4/15: Lovely living-room gig from contemporary trad group Dowally and singer-songwriter Annie Booth. Star of the show though is the wistful and sweet Bec Sandridge; see her here.
Vintage Trouble, O2 ABC, 3/4/15: Ty Taylor is phenomenal, easily the most charismatic lead singer I’ve seen. Sexy, witty, full-on fun. Great as the rest of the band is, I can see him ploughing a lone furrow soon; it would be a shame, but this guy’s too big for anybody.
Nadine Shah, King Tut’s, 14/4/15: gig of the year so far. Shah is fabulous; her 2014 single ‘Stealing Cars’ is a thing of real beauty, and she herself oozes charm and cheekiness. Spent so much time chatting to her I forgot to get her to sign my LP; an absolute delight and a lovely, generous lass.
The Districts, King Tut’s, 30/4/15: Good head down boogie in the style of Boy & Bear. An excellent, energetic band. Their encore, ‘Young Blood’ is a 9 minute epic.
And then seven new Munros, with many more to come. At least all this walking is keeping my alcohol consumption well under control..
I haven’t done nearly as much theatre as I should have this year, but I’ve seen some beauts. Good to experience some actors I’ve never seen before, like Antony Sher; ‘Henry IV’ was sleep-inducing (what does anyone see in the histories?) but Sher was having a ball, chewing the scenery as Falstaff.
Best of the year: one ensemble piece, one male performance, one female performance.
‘Much Ado…’ at the beautiful Royal Exchange was a delight. I rarely laugh when reading Shakespeare’s comedies, but when they’re successfully brought alive they’re great fun. Some didn’t like the big-headed dancing, but I thought it was gorgeous, and Paul Ready as Benedick and Ellie Piercey as Beatrice were brilliant foils.
Tom Hiddleston was fabulous as Coriolanus: I’ve said it all already. But probably the best performance of the year goes to Gillian Anderson as Blanche in the second half of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
The first half – I’ve never liked. It’s all too loud and hysterical and self-indulgent. I confess to nodding off. Then, after the interval, Anderson proceeded to grab the audience by the throat and scream in their faces with a portrayal of a disintegrating woman that in the space of half an hour left me breathless and gobsmacked. She was stupendous, and how she did that night after night after night without going bonkers herself is a miracle. Along with her performance in BBC’s ‘The Fall’, she’s actress of the year, I think.
Not surprisingly, Anderson and Hiddleston won the Evening Standard luvvies’ award – well deserved. Honourable mentions go to Meghan Tyler for her portrayal of another woman off the edge, Ophelia, in the Citz’ otherwise patchy ‘Hamlet’, and to Richard Armitage for a perfect, powerful, sexy John Proctor in The Old Vic’s ‘The Crucible’.
|1. The Crucible||7/12||8||Old Vic Live|
|2. A Christmas Carol||5/12||8||Citizens|
|4. A Streetcar Named Desire||16/9||9||NT Live|
|5. Henry IV||14/5||5||RSC Live|
|6. Much Ado About Nothing||28/4||9||Royal Exchange, Manchester|
|7. War Horse||9/3||7||NT Live|
|8. Coriolanus||4/2||9||NT Live|
The last time I was at a puppet show, I was about 4. I probably cried then. I did again. Clearly, puppets make me cry.
Obviously, this is a global sensation, and rightly so. The story, of course, is a winner; I read Michael Morpurgo’s source novel almost thirty years ago with a First Year class and they were entranced, especially as it was told from the POV of the horse itself, Joey. Kids and anthropomorphism; killer combination. Generally the acting is spot on – Sion Daniel Young tugs heartstrings as young Albert Narrocott – and the script is more than competent, though sometimes it jars as a little clichéd, slightly pat, especially when Ian Shaw dominates the stage as the horses’ German saviour, Muller, and mangles the delivery a little.
But what makes this play are those damned puppets, the bestest pantomime horses ever. It’s a stunning decision to make the puppeteers completely visible and part of the action and it’s astonishing how quickly you completely ignore their presence and buy in completely to the illusion that these are real horses.
And how real. I’m with my wee sister, who’s a horsey person, and she is amazed at just how accurate every twitch of the ear, every sudden startling, even every breath is. She completely accepts the reality of their pain and suffering and, most importantly, their dignity. It’s that that is the most touching aspect of all, especially, for me, the broken Joey, head bowed, finally defeated at the end, awaiting the gunshot that will put him out of his misery until he hears that owl-hoot whistle from his master that slowly revives his shattered heart.
This is a fantastic family play, but it’s much more that that; it’s a brave theatrical experiment that could so easily have fallen flat and looked naff, but, thanks to the artistic and technical wizardry of Handspring Puppets, is quite the triumph. Loved it. Despite the snotters.
Wow. That was unbelievably wonderful.
Coriolanus’ isn’t a play I know that well: I think I read it once at university and subjected sixth year pupils to it a couple of times. I’ve never been a fan of the Roman plays and lumped this in with them; but, oh my goodness, is it something else – at least in this guise. What strikes me so much is the similarity between it and the great tragedies: I keep hearing echoes of Macbeth, especially in the scene where Coriolanus reveals his identity to Aufidius, or of King Lear’s rejection by his daughters in Coriolanus’ rejection of Menenius. My pal and I wonder when it was written, where it comes in the chronology, and we reckon it feels so fully formed it must come later; indeed it does. I’d forgotten that it was written in 1608, after the great tragedies. Seems old Will decided to recycle the best bits of his greatest hits.
It is superb. Stripped bare in the tiny Donmar Warehouse, it is staged as minimalist as possible, ladders, chairs and painted boxes on the floor. Tom Hiddleston takes the lead, and he’s a revelation. Once more, that naturalistic speech predominates; he makes Shakespearean language sound the most natural thing in the world to come out of your mouth, and it’s accompanied by the most 21st century looks and gestures, shrugs, ‘whatevers’ and ‘whatyouonabouts’ that bring a lot of laughs of recognition. He is charming, ruthless, sentimental, roaringly heroic, brutal and sexy by turn, and, as the director Josie Rourke says, we absolutely believe him as a young soldier, husband, father and son trying to make his way in the world. His raw energy and brute force dominate the stage, and it’s hardly surprising that Rourke uses that physicality in a female-fan-pleasing shower scene that is a cross between Alien and a Herbal Essences advert, Hiddleston stripped to the waist, washing the blood from his open wounds, a red fountain soaking the stage as he shakes his head.
He emotes very well, appearing to be able to shed a tear on tap or wind himself up to a fury at the stupidity of the common man; never has fascism seemed so attractive. It’s helped, of course, by the venality of the Tribunes, played by Eliot Levy and Helen Schlesinger as a couple of union officials on the make and a mission. Mark Gatiss is an excellent Menenius, all camp knowingness and laser-like insight and while Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia has little to do, she does it very convincingly; known for her work in Borgen, she says in the pre-show interview how much it echoed with her.
However, pick of the bunch bar Hiddleston is Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ devoted mother. She is a little sing-songy in the first act as she happily declares how she’d sacrifice her son for a good name and a medal or two; however, her appeal to Coriolanus’ better nature as he prepares to ravage Rome is gob-smackingly good, wringing the tears from her son and the audience alike. She invests it with as much humanity as I’ve ever seen on stage, and it had me in bits.
So – I’ve found a new favourite play. When I’m asked which my favourite Shakespeares are, I’m now going to say ‘The Big Four, The Tempest and Coriolanus’; and, in some respects, ‘Coriolanus’ is the best of them all. There wasn’t a single moment I didn’t believe, not a single character I didn’t buy. I loved it.
My second NT Live and second dose of Rory Kinnear in a month, my fifth visit to a theatre production in five weeks, my third Big Will Big Tragedy this year: I think I’m becoming cultured.
This is a rebroadcast of Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet from two years ago, and it’s very, very good. It should probably be compared against David Tennant’s similarly t-shirted shot at the RSC from 2009: from what I remember of that (and I’ll need to watch it again), Kinnear’s is a more naturalistic interpretation: while Tenant goes for the moody, reflective, actory approach, Kinnear’s ‘to be or not to be’ seems to pop up out of nowhere, unheralded and unbidden. There are similarities though: I like the coward soliloquy ‘(I would have fatted all the region’s kites with this slave’s offal’ – what a fabulous line that is) and each delivers it with venomous self-loathing.
Kinnear’s naturalism comes from his apparent lack of presence: some commentators have described him as looking like a middle manager in some regional company, and it’s easy to see what they mean. He underplays beautifully, relying on cyncially-raised smirky eyebrows and that blank look of astonishment his father was such a master of: indeed, during his mad scene with Polonius, he mugs to the audience on a couple of occasions and looks exactly like Roy. It’s this touching ‘everyman’ appeal that made him so successful as Iago and in this allows us to engage with a real, live young man rather than a spoiled Prince who, in some versions, has come across as more than a little hysterical.
The production does something unusual with the plot too. Of course, the standard reading of the play is that Hamlet has a thing for his mum, and delays so long in avenging his dad because the old bastard scared the life out of him and he’s actually quite pleased he was bumped off: after all, it’s only when Gertrude is poisoned that he gets up off his arse to do something about his uncle. Here, though, that is reversed. James Laurenson (my goodness, as soon as I see his face, I’m taken back to watching ‘Boney’, the somewhat culturally insensitive but really well made Australian series about an Aboriginal detective, in the living room of my parents’ house, eating toasted rolls in the evening in 1973 ) plays the ghost as an avuncular, gentle and altogether paternal figure, while Claire Higgins’ Gertrude is a middle-aged lush poured into a leather skirt two sizes too small and ten years too young for her. Thus, Hamlet really is avenging his father, and his anger at his mother is not that she has let her son down, but that she actually has let her husband and herself down. That’s new: not a jot of the old Oedipus here.
There are irritations that are inherent in Hamlet for me. The ‘swear’ scene after the ghosts’ consultation with Hamlet is tedious and a bit daft – I never saw the need for the ghostly incantations from underground – and of course, one has to suspend disbelief to accept that two young men who had in one scene been at each others’ throat would in the next agree to a playful duel. But that’s all part of the politics of the court, and Kinnear makes that absolutely clear. Possibly the most memorable Hamlet I’ve ever seen was a performance in Russian at the old Tron in, oh, 1985? What was so good about that was that, freed from listening to the words, the audience was able to concentrate on the maneuverings of the characters around the politics of the court, and it was played as a chess match, characters moving across a checkered marble floor in and out of spotlights. The Machiavellian atmosphere came across brilliantly, and this production achieves something similar, though not so vivid, with its Secret Service agents sneaking around the place, talking into their microphones, adjusting their earpieces as they round up the players and march them off at gunpoint.
The other characters are solid without leaving me feeling gobsmacked. Claudius is a great part, and Patrick Malahide is a great actor, but, for some reason, he feels a bit like a double glazing magnate rather than a king. Ruth Negga is a lovely, winsome Ophelia, though it’s a part I’ve never really warmed to. Alex Lanipekim’s Laertes isn’t quite the full monty – there’s just a little swagger lacking, I feel. Best of the rest, I think, is David Calder’s Polonius; wandered, puffed up and verbose, he is genuinely funny and a genuine loss.
Oh, and the final sword fight was very realistic for a change, which was a pleasant surprise.
So I liked this, a lot. Despite being delayed and arriving a little late to find myself in amongst a school party (and perfectly behaved they were too) and despite a glitch in the streaming that almost ruined the coward soliloquy, this was a fine production. That’s three of the big four done by NT Live recently: I wonder who’ll be doing Lear for them next?
It’s only a couple of years since I saw ‘Dunsinane’ in Glasgow on its first run, but it’s a real pleasure to see it again and be reminded of how great a play it is. It’s clearly a real Scottish classic, and deserves to be seen and studied by as many Scottish children as possible up and down the country. Despite its setting, it has so many resonances for this generation in its portrayal of war and occupation, of what it is to be independently Scottish and the country’s relationship with its bigger, bolder neighbour.
Nothing’s changed really. There are some cast changes, with Sandy Grierson’s Malcolm more louche and suave than before, and all the better for it, while it’s nice to see old ‘pal’ Lewis Howden’s Macduff as manly as an advert for porridge. Jonny Phillips is astonishing again as Siward and Siobhan Redmond as sultry as ever as Gruoch.
On the rerun, it’s perhaps easier to notice Redmond’s centrality. At the first viewing, Siward is big and bold and all-encompassing, which kind of puts Gruoch in the shade. But expecting that bigness allows the subtlety of Redmond’s performance to shine; she seems always to know what is going on around her, seems able to read these men who whirl and careen across the stage better than the can read themselves. Just how political and manipulative she is comes across much more clearly when we can swivel our gaze away from Philip’s blustering soldier and spend some time just watching what’s going on in that quiet, sexy, understated pose of hers.
And it means there’s a different reading of the final scene available. I see it as a personal scene because I listen to Siward. Ragged and exhausted from his battle through the wintry Scottish mountains, he has come looking for the queen who abandoned him, and he stands there pleading that, as just a man and a woman, they finish what it is between them. However, my friend hears something different; she hears the bigness of it, not Siward and Gruoch but England and Scotland, Redmond uttering a generational curse that she will teach future queens of the country to harry and torment the English of the north.
Perhaps that says a lot about us. Men listen to men, men who are about their own egos, their own feelings; men burn down villages and murder children and start wars for women like Helen and Gruoch. Women listen to women, who all know life is about blood and motherhood, which is bigger than men any day of the week.
And I think she may be right.
Bloody hell, that was wonderful.
‘Othello’ is a play I love (like all Will’s biggie tragedies). I had doubts, I have to say, about Adrian Lester playing the lead. I’ve never seen a production in which Othello hasn’t been played by someone built like a brick shithouse and so handsome every woman in the audience – and a few guys too – go weak at the knickers as soon as he comes onstage. The Hollywood version of a few years back, with Branagh as Iago, had Lawrence Fishburne doing his very best Matrix voice to pretty good effect, but what was best about his performance was the sheer damned predatory sexiness of him. Lester, meanwhile, has been in ‘Hustle’ and (feel free to spit or laugh derisively) ‘Bonekickers’.
But he’s fantastic; absolutely magnificent. He has all the suaveness and superiority he needs at the beginning, charming Desdemona and the collected worthies of Venice (The Duke’s “I think this tale would win my daughter too” raises a perfectly timed laugh, one of surprisingly many), and his barely suppressed contempt for the racist insults thrown at him is terrific, restrained acting. Contrasted with that, his descent into incoherent jealousy is absolutely believable – I’ve never really gone for the epilepsy scene before now, but I buy this, absolutely – and it makes sense in a way it never has before. Even his final speech, believable as it is in its pain, also has the sneaky, self-serving edge of a man looking towards his posthumous reputation that is fresh and new and logical. A wonderful performance.
As is that delivered by Rory Kinnear, who seems to be doing just about everything at the moment, from the wonderful ‘Southcliffe’ to the rather less flattering Count Arthur Strong and a ton of 007 video games. At first, it took a while to tune into his accent, a Cockney spit that seemed to be fractured in its rhythms, but as the voice grew on me, so did his malevolent impact. More than any other production I’ve seen, Iago’s motives here lie in sexual jealousy (perhaps a little overplayed given the textual evidence for it) and his horrifyingly convincing charm once more raises laughs, though this time much more uncomfortable, as he shrugs a ‘what did I do?’ to the audience at Othello’s idiotic gullibility.
The setting is hugely effective, and the featurette explains the care taken to recreate the ennui of a garrison camp; the effect is to update the tale to one from Bhagdhad’s Green Zone or Helmand province. I once had lunch with a researcher who told me horrific tales of the rape of nurses, journalists and aid workers by Allied troops in the Middle Eastern theatre, knocking on the head claims that Abu Ghraib and the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi are perpetrated by ‘bad apples’. There is clearly a sense here of that kind of hyper-sexualised machismo, Bianca the whore a potent image of the disposability of women: a military adviser to the play casually admits that boredom and alcohol are major factors in the life of a garrison. So it perfectly believable that Othello would see all this happening around him and be easily convinced his wife was involved somehow, making perfect sense of the lines“I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known”
There are a few minor, minor issues. Given such two towering performances at the core of the play, light tends to fall harshly on others. Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) doesn’t quite convince at times (she’s a little tomboyish in denim), and nor does posh-boy Cassio (Jonathan Bailey). Tom Robertson is initially great as woosy Roderigo, but the foppishness wears a little thin. But these are difficult parts to get totally right anyway when such a central dynamic occupies the stage like a whirlwind. There are also a couple of tedious extended scenes: the arrival on Cyprus goes on a bit for instance.
But with much of the action thereafter taking place in the interiors of portakabins, the claustrophobia that the play demands has never been quite so stifling, and that results in the most visceral, believable murder I’ve ever seen on stage. The level and extent of domestic violence meted out to Desdemona is cringingly difficult to watch and perfectly captures the horror of what is done to Desdemona, Lester and Vinall nailing it to the point where I was squirming in my seat. Like Branagh’s ‘Macbeth‘, the language sounds and the characters feel surprisingly modern, and I sensed I was watching the kind of brutality that goes on in married couple’s bedrooms all over the country, ending up in A&E or the morgue. ‘Othello’, always cited as the most domestic of Shakespeare’s plays, has never felt so uncomfortably so.
Next stop is a revisit to the wonderful ‘Dunsinane‘ and then – hopefully joy of joys – Kinnear’s NT Live ‘Hamlet’ rebroadcast later in the month. Cannae wait.
A mammoth, two-and-a-half hour adaptation of one of the most influential novels of all time (and one that I haven’t read!), this could have been an evening of dreary Russian speechifying but turns out to be a real gem. Chris Hannan’s script is actually really pacey, and the action cracks on, giving it the distinctly modern feel of a crime movie. With exceptional performances too, this is a great night out.
The play is obviously dominated by Raskolnikov’s existential debate with himself as he tries to place his pointless and motiveless murders in a wider cosmic context, a task he inevitably fails in as soon as love rears its redemptive head. Adam Best is quite brilliant in the lead role, carrying the bulk of the script and the emotive drive of the play. His physicality as he wrenches the ideas within him into some sort of shape is utterly convincing. One of the performances of the year for me.
He’s helped by a generally terrific cast – Cate Haymer as Raskolnikov’s mother and George Costigan (Bob of “Rita, Sue…”) providing comic relief that sometimes borders on the sinister are especially effective. Best of the support is Citizens’ intern Jessica Hardwick as Sonya; she captures her innate goodness and the desperation of her poverty -driven prostitution in a performance that is both sweet and erotic. She shines, quite frankly, and yet may well be the least experienced member of the cast.
Setting is great too, the actors on-stage for the whole production (prior to the start and during the interval too), perhaps emphasising the seething humanity of St Petersburg. An ensemble aesthetic is created (are they all in this together) that works well. One staging gimmick that jars at the beginning but grows on me is the swishing of doors on and off stage to corral the action; another that doesn’t seem to have much purpose is the use of microphones at various points, actors vocalising Raskolnikov’s panicked breathing or the conversations of characters outside doors. But that’s a minor niggle.
There has obviously been a lot of compression of the book’s narrative, and that means that Raskolnikov’s relationships with his sister and his best friend aren’t really fully realised; as a result, Ameira Darwish and Obiama Ugoala, beautiful though they both are, don’t really engage; they feel like broad brush strokes.
Perhaps that compression is also responsible for the feeling that Raskolnikov’s final conversion to the side of morality and empathy seems a little pat. Bursting out his confession to protect Sonya works well enough, but thereafter it feels like there are a few gaps in his journey.
That, though, is probably my fault. At the end of a long, busy week and a long, busy Friday, I find my head swimming with exhaustion at times, and the script – intelligent, erudite and packed full of big, big ideas – loses my attention occasionally. I enjoyed this immensely, but perhaps I need to see it again when I’m really on the ball to squeeze everything it has to offer from it. A terrific play, a terrific production.
I’ve written about Macbeth before, about my search for the perfect version of my favourite play. Is this it? No. Is it the best ever production I’ve seen, though? In many ways, yes.
Let’s run through the many plusses. Branagh is wonderful as Macbeth. Another favourite, Patrick Stewart, delivered it with that Shakespearean gravitas you’d expect from him, all deep resonance and perfect enunciation. Branagh’s is a much more human, naturalistic delivery: he makes Shakespeare sound like ordinary speech most of the time, and that takes enormous skill. His reading of the character is quite superb. In the pre-show interview with co-director Rob Ashford, he stresses the relationship between Macbeth and Lady M, that there was good there before they chose the path of evil, and that they do what they do for each other. Branagh gets that spot on.
And Alex Kingston is perhaps the best Lady M I’ve ever seen. She’s an extraordinary actress, but she’s associated with a particular type of role, and I wondered how she’d get what I was looking for in the character. I have always seen Lady M as her husband’s victim, as a woman doing what she has to do for the love of her life and being made to suffer monumentally as a result: I have absolutely no time whatsoever for the one-dimensional Victorian psycho Jezebel so many bone idle teachers settle for when they study the play with youngsters who deserve so much more kaleidoscopic a view: I might say more about that in the future. But, with that focus on the relationship, I do indeed see a very different character. The ‘unsex me here’ speech is wonderfully done as an appeal for help in doing what she knows she cannot do, the words surprising the hell out of her when they come out her mouth, then growing in confidence as she picks up the theme; a dark version of a ‘God help me’ moment. Furthermore, dashing her baby’s brains out has never felt so anguished; this is not an image that comes easily to her mind, and she wrenches it out from her belly knowing full well the mere utterance of it will damn her, a price she is willing to pay for her husband. This is the most believable version I’ve ever seen. I’ve always said I’d marry Lady Macbeth; in this case, I should be so lucky.
Best Macduff too. I’ve always loved that part; it has so little stage time, and yet is so powerful and pivotal. It’s the part I’d want to play. The scene where he is told of the murder of his wife and children should be raw: well, Ray Fearon rips the heart out of the entire audience. It’s the most primeval wail of utter anguish I’ve ever witnessed, preceded by a swirl of disbelief and absolute hopelessness. It is the best of several stunningly tragic moments: the sleepwalking scene, the murder of Lady Macduff (a supernaturally beautiful Rosalie Craig), Macbeth’s reaction to his wife’s death: this is a play that goes for the emotional jugular.
Best staging? Check. A disused church in Manchester is turned into a muddy, bloody battlefield, the action played up and down the central aisle, stabbing its way through the audience. It is absolutely fitting, bringing the actors up close and personal with the audience. It just beats Patrick Stewart’s version of a disused hospital. Perhaps the best witches too, though that wasn’t a unanimous decision in my party. I like their charred appearance, their fractured diction and mangled vowels, their jerky epileptic marionette movement; they are like figures from some nightmarish silhouette show. And I like too the way Kingston echoes that in the sleepwalking scene.
So, all good – nay, great. Just a couple of problems. Before Duncan’s murder, I get exactly what Ashford and Branagh are doing with the couple, and their interdependence is palpable. And that bond is brought back to the fore in the ‘she should have died hereafter’ speech, Branagh choosing to deliver it with all the intensity of passion for his dead wife that most productions eschew. So that leaves a disconnect. What is the motivation for Macbeth distancing himself after Duncan’s murder, the separation that dooms them both? It’s as if the Macbeth of the first and last third is replaced by some Kagemusha-type changeling, a Doppelganger who unravels the couple’s relationship and reign. What’s very convincing is Lady M’s growing astonishment at the sudden waywardness of her husband’s mental state, though the “Nought’s had…” speech at the beginning of Act 3 scene 2 doesn’t quite work for me: it should be a soliloquy and therefore about her, but becomes a description of Macbeth as she watches him fall to pieces. And why that happens just doesn’t really make sense to me. So the reading is brave and unusual – but perhaps a little disjointed.
Maybe that’s because I’m looking for my own reading, my Macbeth. I see the whole play as twin journeys of revelation: the revelation of Macbeth as ‘fair is foul’ and Lady M as ‘foul is fair’. The theme of duplicity, established so early and hammered home through image after image and character after character, means, I think, that Shakespeare wants us to question everything and everybody we see in this play. So when we see Lady M apparently manipulating her husband into murder by slagging off his manhood – well, think again, folks, about what just might really be going on.
And that brings me to another slight problem for me with this production. I’m not keen on much of the first act – the reporting of the battle to Duncan, the ‘Bellona’s Bridegroom’ stuff – being jettisoned for an action sequence in the rain (everyone’s taking a leaf out of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the West End, and pretty soon live rain will be de rigueur for any production, even ones set wholly in a drawing room). I think we need all those words to establish Macbeth as the ‘fair’, we need to hear how he is perceived so that we can say, ‘uh-huh, something fishy about this bloke here…’
I could go on and on about my theory for hours (and have done), but it is just a theory, just one possible interpretation as dubious as any other. Well, nowhere near as dubious as the teacher of a friend’s son I tutored a few years back, who told his class the play was all about ambition, nothing else, and that the greatest playwright the world has ever seen wrote a play in which one of the most complex characters theatre has ever seen had only that one ‘fatal flaw’. Well, thought my friend’s son, okay, but that doesn’t make sense, because if he’s just ambitious, why does everything go to shit after he’s crowned? Upon writing a speculative but thoughtful essay postulating that perhaps Macbeth might actually also lack a bit of self belief in his abilities as king, his teacher gave him 7/25 and wrote ‘Didn’t you listen to me in class?’ at the end of the paper. Yes he did listen, sir: he also had an independent thought while he was doing so. And you crushed it.
So it’s hugely refreshing to see a production that takes a different, more complex approach – Ashford explicitly puts the ambition theme aside – that sees both characters as quintessentially human beings, complex, loving, capable of supreme stupidity and, ultimately, evil. So, a big, big round of applause. Almost, almost my perfect Macbeth.