Sir Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth impresses in Manchester

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Sir Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth
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Sir Kenneth Branagh has not appeared in a Shakespeare play since 2002
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The production takes places in a deconsecrated church in Manchester
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Sir Kenneth is co-directing as well as starring in the play
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Doctor Who and ER actress Alex Kingston plays Lady Macbeth
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The play opens with a full-blooded battle scene on a stage filled with mud
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Anjana Vasan, Charlie Cameron and Laura Elsworthy play the Weird Sisters

Sir Kenneth Branagh's first appearance as Macbeth has confirmed him to be an "intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor" in what is a "great" production of the play, critics have decided.

Macbeth is Sir Kenneth's first Shakespeare role on stage for 11 years.

It is being staged in a 281-capacity deconsecrated church in Manchester.

The Guardian critic Michael Billington said: "The highest compliment I can pay him is that at times he evoked golden memories of Olivier in the role."

The play begins with a full-blooded battle scene in driving rain, in which sparks fly as the warriors clash swords.

The stage - essentially a mud-filled trough - runs the length of the church, with the audience close to the action on banks of benches on either side.

Spectators were warned not to wear their "best, light coloured, dry-clean only" clothes in case they got splattered by the mud from the earthy and violent production, which is part of the Manchester International Festival.

Mr Billington wrote that "we seem to be in the thick of the rain-soaked, mud-spattered opening battles".

"This is an exciting production that shows why Branagh is such a fine Shakespearean actor," he told newspaper readers. "He can do the soaring vocal cries but he is also sensitive to the minutiae of language."

The actor also "conveys the desolation and despair of a man who has sold his soul only to be confronted by the hollowness of tyrannical power", he wrote.

In The Telegraph, critic Dominic Cavendish declared it a "thrilling, cinematically fluid account" of Macbeth that "doesn't hold back in plunging us into the harrowing grime of battle".

"As the earthy playing-area turns into a bog, as drums beat and swords clash, something stirs in the memory. Oh yes, Shakespeare can be really exciting, can't he?" he wrote.

Sir Kenneth "shows us the vestigial civilisation beneath the martial exterior", according to his five-star review.

"This is a Macbeth, though, that won't just go down as a highlight of the Manchester International Festival but as one of the Scottish Play's great revivals.

"It's a phoenix-like feather in the cap of Sir Ken, too, comeback Shakespearean king."

'Some oddities'

The Times critic Libby Purves gave the play four stars and said there were "some oddities", particularly Branagh's "mutteringly naturalistic" performance, which she judged a "classic screen-friendly rendering".

"More resonantly 'stage' performances echo off the arches from his peerlessly intense Lady (Alex Kingston, thrilling) and from noble Ray Fearon as Macduff and Jimmy Yuill as a canny greybeard Banquo," she wrote.

But she decided that "much is forgiven" as Branagh's performance went on, thanks to his "mature, late-won understanding".

Tickets have sold out, but the 20 July performance will be beamed live to thousands of spectators on a giant screen in Manchester and to theatres around the world as part of the National Theatre's NT Live broadcasts.

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