Arriving on the heels of Othello, though actually predating it, the newest NT Live* show is co-directed by star Branagh and Broadway veteran Ashford and staged in a deconsecrated church.

The accountants must have spewed: the season sold out in nine minutes, and the venue accommodated only 281. But the show has other problems.

The traverse stage, the church's nave, is covered with peaty black soil, which works for the opening rain-sodden battle but then becomes a distraction: to keep things moving, characters tramp up and down a lot, but too many characters look like farmers coming home after milking; nuance is hard to convey when you're up to you ankles in mud.

More disturbingly, the delivery of the poetry often lacks subtlety, too.

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Branagh's Shakespearean diction is the best of his generation, but many of his line readings here are idiosyncratic and irritating, simultaneously ponderous and rushed.

He runs lines on, in defiance of both punctuation and good sense, and even intimate exchanges are bellowed as if in a gale.

Ray Fearon's Macduff is an outstanding exception: the scene in which he learns of his family's slaughter ("Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?") is by some margin the best of the night. Branagh's performance, by contrast, wants both for energy and focus and the vital chemistry between him and a very melodramatic Kingston is missing in action.

Odd editing (the Bloody Sergeant's description of the battle is better than the production's enactment of it, but we never hear it) and some strange direction (the witches channel Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which rather misses the point) add to the show's problems.

It suffers, perhaps, by comparison with other masterpieces in this series, but, its sprightly interval-free pace notwithstanding, this is not a memorable Macbeth.

NT Live is a project of London's National Theatre in which productions are filmed and broadcast in real time to cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. We get them here on hard drive a few weeks later.
Stars: 3/5
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Jimmy Yuill, Ray Fearon
Directors: Branagh, Rob Ashford
Running time: 140 mins
Rating: E
Verdict: Disappointing

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- TimeOut