William Shakespeare
Manchester International Festival
St Peter's Church, Manchester

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth Credit: Johan Persson
Ray Fearon (Macduff) and Jimmy Yuill (Banquo) Credit: Johan Persson
Alexander Vlahos (Malcolm) Credit: Johan Persson
Alex Kingston (Lady Macbeth) Credit: Johan Persson
Jimmy Yuill (Banquo) and the cast of Macbeth Credit: Johan Persson
Anjana Vasan (Weird Sister), Charlie Cameron (Weird Sister) and Laura Elsworthy (Weird Sister) Credit: Johan Persson

This is the show from this year's MIF that sold out in minutes as it sees the return to the stage of Kenneth Branagh in one of Shakespeare's greatest roles. The demand for tickets has resulted in both a large-screen relay and an NT Live broadcast to cinemas throughout the UK, but not even the whisper of a transfer.

After meeting at Murray's Mills, the location for the Library Theatre's Hard Times in 2011, we are led in groups named after significant elements from the play—I was Donalbain, but you could be in Cawdor or Dunsinane or several others—to St Peter's Church at the end of the road, the new base for the Hallé.

Inside, the audience is seated on two sides facing one another, looking down over a muddy track between them. At one end is where the altar would have been, with a huge cross hanging ominously between the stained-glass windows. At the other is a wooden wall with doors from which the witches emerge and a high passageway above. Then, just as you are adjusting to sitting on hard steps—they said bench-like seating, but really you are sat on the floor—it begins to rain, heavily.

The setting of a play like Macbeth in a deconsecrated church is an obvious one, but there is much more to the production than this. The play runs straight through for just over two hours with no interval, so inevitably there are cuts, but there are also additions of action. Film-like, some action that we are usually only told about is brought out on stage and shown to us, significantly the huge muddy battle at the start in the torrential rain—no "bloody man" with a lengthy speech here—and the murder of King Duncan.

Christopher Oram's design is sparse and simple and suitably medieval in look, but some spectacular events happen upon it. Paul Kieve has been brought in as illusion consultant, so the witches do "hover through the fog and filthy air" and they conjure their apparitions through a wall of real flames. Even the huge church windows are used for some scenes, as the blinds drop from the outside to bathe the actors and audience together in natural light.

Director Rob Ashford has a company of 27 actors, which adds real weight to the crowd and battle scenes, especially the latter as fighters slam their opponents against the wooden barriers between them and the audience and slaughter them in the mud. There is a real company feel with totally committed performances throughout this exhaustingly physical production.

Branagh takes the character from the apparent contradiction of someone who is ruthless in battle but "too full of the milk of human kindness" into the savage tyrant he becomes absolutely convincingly. His performance is compelling throughout, but then this is a production designed to draw you in and not let you take a breath until it is over. I felt far more immersed in the performance than I have in any "immersive" theatre productions, which are generally forgettable theatrical fairground rides.

Ray Fearon is stunning once again as Macduff, especially in the scene where Ross—the excellent Norman Bowman—informs him of the death of his family, a truly heartbreaking moment, as Malcolm looks on and waits for the moment to induce him into battle, played by Alexander Vlahos who grows in stature and becomes more king-like in the later stages of the play.

But then there are so many good performances, even in the smaller roles. Alex Kingston is a more than adequate Lady Macbeth, and Daniel Ings plays a great cameo as the Porter. Jimmy Yuill is a powerful, battleworn Banquo. And so on.

This is a production that deserves the hype, and more. Catch it on the big screen if you must, but it can't possibly compare to being amongst the mud, blood, spit and magic of St Peter's Church. This is one of those totally compelling theatrical experiences that we always wish for. Something magical this way comes.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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