Macbeth: In brief
He took the London stage by storm 30 years ago, but Kenneth Branagh has never trod the New York boards. Now the thespian brings his critically acclaimed take on Shakespeare’s Scottish tyrant to the lofty environs of Park Avenue Armory. The production (codirected by Branagh and Rob Ashford) is supposed to be intensely physical, drenched in blood, sweat and pouring rain.
Macbeth: Theater review by David Cote
Gather round, sisters of dank darkness and midnight marsh, ye wasting wraiths who have tramped through many a peaty bog to see the Scottish Play. We who cackled on the aisle as Ethan Hawke and Jack O’Brien made Shakespeare’s dire tragedy even more appalling. We who gnashed our teeth as Alan Cumming supped on the scenery solo. We who cursed our fate in Brooklyn at a tediously spare import from Cheek by Jowl. We who wake screaming in the small hours, still haunted by Kelsey Grammar’s bloody butchery. Happy tidings, sisters: Kenneth Branagh has marched on the Park Avenue Armory and banishèd the curse!
This is Macbeth in IMAX 3-D by way of the History Channel: scrupulous histories and tartans of 11th-century Scottish clans in your program, and a monumental set (by Christopher Oram) filling the Armory’s sprawling Drill Hall. On one end of the playing space there’s a candlelit shrine with tall Christian-icon frescos. On the other end are 15-foot-high Stonehenge-like monoliths. Between them is a long, low-walled corridor where most of the action takes place. In an opening fight sequence, rain pelts Macbeth (Branagh) and his fellow warriors as they hack into each other, kicking up mud and spouting blood. You’ll have flashbacks to Branagh’s iconic 1989 film, Henry V, which also excelled in the gore-and-grime aesthetic of medieval warcraft.
Branagh and Rob Ashford jointly direct this gargantuan undertaking, which bristles with confident showmanship and clean, muscular diction. One hardly need note that Branagh has a facility for smoothing out even the thorniest Shakespearean passage with wit and clarity; his Macbeth is an earthy, sexual bruiser, but also a thinking man, one whose brain boils with guilty horror even as he plots his next outrage. Branagh traces the regicide’s psychological deterioration with clean, bold strokes. By the time he gets to the nihilist “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” rant, the tyrant has hit bottom; Branagh isolates and groaningly draws out the word idiot (as in “a tale told by”) with heartbreaking intensity.
Alex Kingston’s take on Lady Macbeth is to explore how much of an innocent she really is: In the early scenes, she eschews the typical witchy scheming for a kind of self-deluded purity. (She is first seen praying at the Christian altar, so maybe there’s a religious subtext to her ambition.) At any rate, it’s a tricky gambit, since the character plots King Duncan’s death pretty much from the get-go. Perhaps the idea was to portray a loving couple caught in a folie à deux that neither thought would come to fruition, but the conceit is difficult to pull off, especially in such a supersize production. Still, the carnal desire the Macbeths have for each other comes through clearly, and the Act II murder scene—one of the most psychologically searing passages in all Shakespeare—will have your hair standing on end.
All this bold spectacle and fine acting (with needed vocal amplification) is a thrilling and satisfying account of the play. People who want their Shakespeare abstract or contemporized may roll their eyes, but if you accept the pseudorealism of the period dressing, it’s quite engrossing. Of course, Branagh has always been a Bard completist (e.g., the uncut, four-hour Hamlet) while also using film (or filmic verisimilitude) to manifest every detail of the text. So there’s lots of stage illusion peppering the mise en scène, some of it surprisingly literalist: When Macbeth soliloquizes “Is this a dagger I see before me?,” we see not one but two floating knives. The murder of Duncan takes place in plain view. And of course, the environment never lets us forget we’re in Scotland circa 1040—a scent of loam wafts up from the set. Welcome surreal touches balance the empirical-historicized vibe: The Weird Sisters levitate, clinging lichenlike to the edges of the henge and they run giggling through the halls of Inverness.
It doesn’t all work. In the second hour of the intermission-free event, there are questionable directorial choices: Ashford and Branagh allow Act IV's Malcolm and Macduff scene to grind on ponderously, and they stick Lady Macbeth way up on top of a monolith for her sleepwalking scene. Also, you wish they’d found a way to work the witches back into the ending, or chosen less cheesy "leafy screens" for the Birnam Wood effect.
But these are quibbles. This production might lapse into theme-park excess (before being seated, the audience is divided into clans and given wristbands) and, as stated, it might be a bit too literal-minded for some. But Branagh and Ashford (and the mighty resources of Manchester International Festival and the Park Avenue Armory) have crafted a unique spectacle that mixes world-class acting, intelligent dramaturgy and a populist flair for big gestures. If you never see another Macbeth in your lifetime, let this be the one to haunt your dreams.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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