I know how lucky I was to have this ticket – it was as coveted as the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and almost everyone I spoke to about my plans for Saturday afternoon was mildly envious.

When I told my mother-in-law she said: “I’m watching on a big screen at a cinema next Saturday.” Me: “Sorry, I’m not gloating.” Ditto, my daughter’s Brownie pack leader, also watching a screened version of the final performance on July 20.

The play is staged in a deconsecrated Victorian church for the Manchester International Festival, co-directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford. The perfect venue. Although, given the current sultry weather, remarkably un-church like and rather more like a cauldron of heat: an apt setting for the turmoil of Macbeth.

Put simply, this is one of the best live performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. I would have liked to have seen the 1976 performance with Judi Dench (you know, the one with the other-worldly howl), but I was too young.

The stage is almost like a muddy runway at a fashion show, the audience seated on numbered steps watching the action like a tennis match.

Boom, the opening scene hits you like a brick. Straight into the rain-battered, mud-splashed battle, swords and actors immersed in the action, grappling with each other tantalisingly close to the audience.

Every element of the production is spot on. The lighting on Macbeth’s face as he first appears on stage is exquisite. It’s a mask of evil. The witches appearing out of arched doors in the nave where the organ once was. Writhing and gurning with mud-splattered faces.

Later, during the dagger soliloquy, a dagger-shaped shard of light streams through the nave’s wooden arched doors and knives levitate mysteriously.

The “Is this a dagger?” set piece is delivered in a quieter voice by Branagh, but is no less powerful than his other monologues.

Other reviewers questioned why it was necessary to have Macbeth stabbing the sleeping Duncan to death, whose bed is symbolically placed where the altar once was. But I felt he was the ultimate sacrificial lamb and this was an opportunity too enticing to miss.

We also literally see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with blood on their hands as he claims the crown.

The power of Branagh’s performance is in the intonation- stammering slightly when he says the first letters of murder and assassination. Meanwhile, the insight into his tortured conscience is often demonstrated in little ways. At one point Branagh shrouds his cloak around him and curls up on his throne, a vulnerable gesture. Again, on what would have once been the altar where Duncan was murdered.

Ray Fearon’s performance as Macduff is wonderful, too, and not overshadowed by the greatness of Branagh. His grief scene was particularly notable and the way he intoned “Turn, hellhound, turn,” was incredible.

Alex Kingston is a power-mad Lady Macbeth who becomes a husk of a woman, sleepless and reliving the murder in her sleepwalking and hand washing in a gallery above the nave for the famous “Out damn spot” scene. Jimmy Yuill was a consistent Banquo, whose face appeared hauntingly in the gallery, tormenting Macbeth.

There are many dramatic and surprising moments in this production. The woman at the altar tending to the candles with her back to the audience is Lady Macbeth. A cauldron of fire unexpectedly bursts through the floor amid gasps from the audience.

I didn’t have too much time to ponder as I was rapt by the production, but I later began to think how so many Shakespearian phrases have entered our language. From Macbeth we have the “milk of human kindness” and “poisoned chalice”. It’s clear to see how the language has endured and remained powerful.

In the programme, Branagh says Shakespeare is always present in his life. Yet it’s taken this, his 25th Shakespeare performance, before he played Macbeth. I’m glad he waited and feel honoured to have witnessed it.

More broadly, having Branagh at the Manchester International Festival is a fillip for the city, the festival and its reputation on a world stage. I was sat next to a Belgian journalist who had travelled to Manchester for the first time to review this play.

Not only is this production exciting, mesmerising and fast-paced, but it is incredibly intelligent. The former church was hot and humid, like a sauna, the audience were sat on uncomfortable seats, many fanning themselves with programmes. There were muddy handprints on the set and those near the front ran the risk of being mildly splattered with mud. Candle wax like tears streaked down the pulpit and blood sprayed on the wall from the murder scene.

It must have been a lot worse for the actors in their layers of heathery tartan clothing. And it’s a marathon performance of two hours with no interval.

Yet I didn’t mind this discomfort. When Branagh was on stage you were so lost in the performance that you forgot your back was aching or your leg had gone dead. Also, it added to the overall claustrophobic dramatic effect.

The audience roared its approval – three curtain calls and a standing ovation. It doesn’t get better than that, Manchester. I walked out of the church into the warmth of the Northern Quarter’s late afternoon and I has goose bumps on my arms and a huge grin on my face.

It was that spectacular.

Review by Helen Carter


What: Macbeth

Where: deconsecrated church in Manchester

When: until July 20, 2013

More infoMIF.co.uk