THE choice of a
deconsecrated church as the venue for Sir Kenneth Branagh's return
to the Shakespearean stage, in the role of Macbeth, set up
interesting resonances. The language in a play that deals with "the
ungodly, the unholy, and the irreligious" would sound different in
a church, the actor suggested beforehand, and would add to the
sense of desecration on which the story depends.
He had a point. But it was
not the defining metaphor for the performance in the former
Anglican church of St Peter's, in Ancoats, as part of the
Manchester International Festival. The building's stained glass
still carries Petrine keys, and the set designer, Christopher Oram,
had hung a gigantic Celtic cross before them. Yet he had also
transformed the nave into two facing jousting stands and filled the
space between them with soil upon which heavy rain poured during a
dramatic opening battle.
Within minutes, the stage
was turned into a quagmire of inches-deep mud. As the play
progressed, this mud became the key metaphor for the moral
pollution that infects the central characters. It clung to the feet
of all, and defiled the trailing fine woollen gowns of Lady Macbeth
and the other female courtiers. The actors affected not to notice
it; but the audience could not forget it.
There are many ways of
considering evil. The dominant mode these days is psychological, as
was clear from the recent demand by the murderer Ian Brady that he
should be treated as bad, not mad. Mr Brady's attempt to be
transferred from a mental hospital to a prison was an attempt to
score points over others whom he regarded as less intelligent than
There are dimensions to
Shakespeare that sit happily with that view. Iago's animus against
Othello, like Shylock's against the Venetian merchant Antonio, are
easily thus portrayed. So is the monstrous nihilism of Richard III
in a play that was, for Shakespeare, in many ways a prototype for
But Macbeth's is a
different kind of evil, and one that is not so susceptible to
post-Freudian interpretation. Branagh's Macbeth begins as a decent
enough chap before he is lured by the witches' words into
fulfilling what they prophesy. He is not a man without religion so
much as one in thrall to a malevolent version of it. He knows right
from wrong, and is torn, his mind full of scorpions, as he flickers
in and out of madness.
This is evil as possession -
a notion of which the monarch of the day, James I, approved - so
that Macbeth never feels any pleasure in the fruits of his
Machiavellian ambition, and what he desires slips ever further from
his grasp. He ends as a man with nothing left to lose.
But this is a world in which
evil is a metaphysical reality rather than a psychological
metaphor. The dagger floats in the air, not just in his imaginings.
The banqueting table physically divides to allow Banquo's ghost
through. The audience feels the intense heat of the flames of hell,
just as they are showered with sparks from the clashing swords of
the battles. And the walls of the theatre, like the clothes of the
audience, are spattered with mud as Macbeth is spattered with blood
at the close. This Macbeth takes us back from the psyche
to the soul.
Pope Francis: Untying the knots by Paul Vallely is published
by Bloomsbury on 1 August.