I was quite fired up by the prospect of seeing Kenneth Branagh at the Sheffield Crucible, let me tell you. Branagh is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation and his return to the stage after a 10-year absence to play the lead role in Richard III is a source of huge excitement for theatre critics like me. Consequently, I eagerly made my way to St Pancras last Tuesday and caught the 3.25pm to Sheffield. I was going to be present at an historic occasion!
At 10.50pm, after Ken had taken his final bow, I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I wasn't in a state of post-orgasmic euphoria either. His performance as the hunchbacked king is technically faultless and it's thrilling to watch. I was reminded of Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympic Games. But Branagh's Richard is so pleased with himself, so completely untroubled by doubts or insecurities, it's impossible to feel any sympathy for him. In his struggle to give the character some contemporary resonance, Branagh has turned Richard into a cold-blooded yuppie murderer, a Shakespearian version of Patrick Bateman, the serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. The upshot is that he never really connects with the audience.
I expressed these reservations to a fellow critic during the interval and he said, in Branagh's defence, that he was clearly modelling the character on Peter Mandelson. Watching him in the second half, I thought my colleague might well be right. Branagh has given Richard a reptilian air that is eerily reminiscent of New Labour's dark prince. When he drops his façade and talks directly to the audience, Richard is almost unbearably smug, a preening, self-satisfied clever clogs who revels in his ability to manipulate people. Branagh even manages to incorporate Mandelson's trademark sneer into Richard's repertoire of repulsive mannerisms. For an actor who's previously been identified as a New Labour luvvie, this is a courageous interpretation.
Unfortunately, while this may explain what Branagh's up to, it doesn't alter the fact that his Richard lacks the necessary humanity to draw in the audience. As a theatrical spectacle, this production of Richard III is spellbinding; as a piece of drama, it left me cold.
The same cannot be said of Richard Eyre's production of The Crucible on Broadway. I was lucky enough to get a ticket on a brief visit to New York a fortnight ago and it was a truly memorable experience, one of those rare nights of theatrical magic that compensates for all those other nights of mind-numbing boredom. From the moment the curtain went up, I was transported to another world. The audience became invisible, the stage seemed to disappear, and I was plunged into the nightmare that was Salem in 1692. When a play engages your imagination to this extent, the experience is almost supernatural.
One of the hallmarks of a production of this calibre is that it's impossible to put your finger on exactly what accounts for its power. It's a seamless whole in which everything perfectly compliments everything else. But if I was forced to single out one aspect it would be the performance of Liam Neeson as John Proctor. My God, what a man! As the only person in Salem with the courage to stand up to the Puritans, Neeson's Proctor shines with moral rectitude. Integrity seems to shoot out of his fingers like ectoplasm. As the play winds its way to its inevitable conclusion, Neeson grows and grows until he appears almost too large to fit on stage. The climax of the play, in which Proctor has to choose between sacrificing his life or sacrificing his reputation, is almost unbearably thrilling. At one point I was so overwhelmed I thought I might pass out.
Liam Neeson got a standing ovation for his performance, while Kenneth Branagh didn't, and I think that was probably right. Neeson doesn't possess Branagh's technical mastery--he's nothing like as precise an actor--yet he has that spark of greatness that Branagh lacks. When Neeson's Proctor tells his wife, just after she's been arrested, that he will fall on the court "like an Ocean", he speaks with such extraordinary authority it's almost as if God Himself is acting through him. Branagh, for all his wizardry, never manages to rise to these heights. His Richard remains stubbornly earthbound, while Neeson soars above our heads like an avenging angel.