Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Kenneth BranaghI have long believed that Kenneth Branagh is the greatest Shakespearean actor ever. Of course, he has all the actors that came before him to build upon. But he is so much better than the generation that came before, that it is hard to escape the conclusion that he really does bring something special—something more than just refinement.

Last night, while writing Benghazi! Preview, I came upon a filmed performance of Branagh doing the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech from Macbeth. This is one of the speeches of Shakespeare that I’ve memorized. And I’ve always found it difficult. Unlike the opening to Richard III that I completely understand and feel that I have the emotional flow, I feel this speech is all over the place. The way it is normally performed is emotionally dead. Macbeth understands that the end has come and he is ruefully reflecting on the nature of existence.

There are two difficult lines. The first is, “Out, out, brief candle!” He’s talking about the death of his wife. Ian McKellen says the line with a kind of mocking bitterness. Patrick Stewart does it sadly, which is what seems the most obvious way to do it. Alan Cumming does it with much more emotion than either of those actors, and that line seems to be spoken directly to lady Macbeth. Sean Connery manages much the same thing, but the emotional content bounces around like a pinball.

The second difficult line is, “Signifying nothing.” Both McKellen and Stewart provide very long pauses between these words. I understand this. It is tempting to wait as though Macbeth is thinking about what life can possibly mean only to conclude, “Nothing.” But it always sounds fake to me. Macbeth knows where his sentence is leading to. Maybe it is something about Scottish actors, but both Cumming and Connery come right out with it.

With all due respect to all of those actors (and I’m very fond of Stewart’s and Cumming’s performances), Branagh’s performance is on a different level. He starts stoically. And he runs through the lines very rapidly. I’ve always thought these lines should be read without pause and this is exactly what he does:

… and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

But then he starts to lose it on “lighted” in “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” So by the end of the line he is crying. Thus, the first troublesome line—”Out, out, brief candle!”—is wailed.

He then regains his composure, but just barely. He’s trying to be philosophical. But he again starts to cry on the line, “It is a tale told by an idiot.” And then, he is a complete mess. I’m not sure the text is intelligible if you don’t know it. But by the time he gets to our second troublesome line—”Signifying nothing.”—there is a very good reason for a long pause. He isn’t looking for the word; he just can’t get it out.

Here is the video. It is a thing to behold. But before you start it, turn your volume all the way up because the sound is recorded really low.

[Update: as usual, the original was forced to be taken down; so here is a video of a video hopefully will stay up. -FM]

It is rare that I see Kenneth Branagh do some Shakespeare without thinking, “Oh! That’s how it should be done!” This is how the “Tomorrow” speech should be done.

Afterword

I’m not that fond of his Hamlet. But I think it is exactly right. Hamlet is a very unlikable character. And speaking of unlikable characters, I still haven’t been able to see him as Iago in Othello.

0 thoughts on “Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

  1. I don’t even like "Macbeth" very much and for some reason I also have that passage memorized. I always heard it in my head as rapid-fire and cynical. Branagh does it defeated; he’s not as impervious to pain as he thought he was. Gives a different take to the character; I’ll have to read the play again.

  2. @JMF – I don’t recommend reading it. I still think it is probably Shakespeare’s best play, but it isn’t great on the page. The Patrick Stewart version is very good. I highly recommend watching it.

    I think one thing about Branagh is that he is a highly emotional actor. You see this in other roles as well, such as Jimmy in [i]Look Back in Anger[/i], where he is so fragile.

    Memorizing speeches has really allowed me to get inside what it is an actor does, even if I am no actor. And it really is about problem solving: why am I saying this and how do I convey this. There are plenty of valid ways of doing this speech, because different people react differently. But if it were me and my world was falling apart and my wife went crazy and killed herself, I would react as Branagh does.

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