Home Reviews Review: Macbeth NTL
Review: Macbeth NTL

Review: Macbeth NTL



Friends, gamers, readers lend me your ears. I have a confession.  I am a whore: a theatre whore.  However, the theatre can be a costly habit.  As a result I was overjoyed to learn of National Theatre Live, a commemorative project celebrating the NT’s 50th anniversary.  The premise: theatre productions are broadcast direct to cinemas.  With theatre tickets being almost invariably dear, the project has afforded yours truly the opportunity to capitalise of his whoredom, to become a cheap whore.  In principle this is not new; prior the death of renowned writer Christopher Hitchens a special presentation dedication to the great man was helmed by Stephen Fry.  Those many who could not get tickets to the theatre took to their cinema as an alternative.  Perhaps the cutting-edge aspect to the National Theatre Live project is the sheer scale.  There is a lot of Shakespeare including Othello, which has been given a contemporaneous twist tying it to the middle-east in modern times. Also available is The Habit of Art, a 2009 play by Alan Bennett, and an adaptation of Frankenstein featuring both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (who alternate the roles of the creator and the created).  With such a wide selection a whore is spoilt for choice.

Thus far though, circumstance has contrived to allow me the chance of catching just one show, Macbeth, broadcast from the Manchester International festival.  Before any reviewing can really get underway I must own my prejudices.  It is difficult not to traipse into the realm of hagiography: this is a favourite play featuring a cast and a director I admire.  Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that under the joint directorship Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh that text is animated – the former having dubbed the latter: “a master of the text”.  The question as to whether the words pulled across three centuries will be understood is put to rest in mere moments.  It is ascertained easily and with immediacy that grips.  In hindsight it makes such doubts seems almost tiresome.  The play is performed in an abandoned church.    One might be forgiven for thinking that something is lost to a cinema goer, whose experience is not premised by walking through the building.  Yet the crane shots do drink in the atmosphere.  The propriety here is twofold, in keeping with the play historically and thematically.  The architecture of a church, which was until recently dilapidated, reminds us that the world of the play is removed from ours.  However, this is ultimately subsidiary and subordinate to the thematic of the location.  A cornerstone of the play is the hubristic ambition of its titular character and his wife, and so to hold the play in a place that upheld the hierarchical preordination of a bygone age is a stroke of real brilliance.

 NTL3It is equally notable that the ethical violations of the play in no way diminish the humanity of the man and wife over whom the play will hold judgement.  That is the achievement not of setting but casting. I am sure that for any Whovians that the singing of praises will be previous where Alex Kingston is concerned.  Lady Macbeth lacks the mano-a-mano proclivities of the Wife of the Doctor.  Kingston’s performance begins with her just as much the bedrock for her husband as Dr River Song.  The character trajectories are different of course but that’s no tragedy.  Well it is.  In fact the fate of River Song is tragic eventually (Spoilers!) so the characters’ trajectories are tragic in both cases.  The difference is that River does not crumble whereas Lady Macbeth does.  But for all her time on stage she is instrumental in casting Macbeth in a human, if not humane, light.

 Now having vowed to avoid sycophancy I am courting the “slings and arrows” of that “self-same” realm.  So to make good on that claim I need to turn to the “quips and follies”.  The shortcomings, for the most part, are more technological than theatrical, none more so than the crane shot in the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff.  As a punter I can imagine that this would be pretty convincing.  However, shot from above, the action looked a little staid.  Still, there is a potential bright side in the DVD release.  The DVD (which is now available) may instill greater verisimilitude with a combination of a smaller screen and FPS variance.

 Sound is also an occasional problem.  When the Weird Sisters make their entrance it is a climactic and pivotal moment.  However, the weirdness of this sorority is emphasised by means of vocal distortion.  My hunch is that combined with the acoustics there was a problem in their voices being intelligible to the cinema audience.  Then again, the problem may have been with the screening I was in, some cinemas handling it better than others. For me the words were why I went so their being unavailable was a little galling.


Even so, I must stress that the project’s availability is amongst its greatest triumphs.  It is an historical fact that the textual richness of the bard has been complimented (I use the word knowingly) by theatre charges.  I know I have harped on about the economics already and will try not to try your patience.  There are those better qualified than me to speculate on such matters so, you may be relieved to know, that what you are about to hear is not a rally for or against cost.  I will say only that the project means that finance is not final.  This is doubly true for Macbeth, as the spray emanating from the stage meant that the audience was advised as to their sartorial choice, asked not to where their best.  Dress code has long since been an element of snobbery that has dogged the theatre, an element that National Theatre Live has effectively removed.  To take it further, the removal of said element could be seen to make the experience of the theatre at the cinema preferable as more casual attire is permissible therein.  Sitting comfortably in my cinema seat, I felt analogous to a groundling, and would advise all to take advantage of theatre coming to a cinema near you!