Review: Macbeth

Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth
(©Stephanie Berger)

It’s doubtful you’ll ever see as compelling and visceral a interpretation of Macbeth as the one being performed for much too brief a run at the Park Avenue Armory. Co-starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, this production offers theatrical spectacle on a grand scale that stands in marked contrast to the stripped-down, modern-dress Shakespearean productions that are so often seen around New York. This is a great classic as might be presented by Medieval Times, and that's meant as a compliment.

Co-staged by Branagh and American director Rob Ashford, the production was originally presented last year at the Manchester International Festival in a small church accommodating some 250 theatergoers. Its presentation in the Armory’s vast, 55,000-square-foot drill hall is inevitably far less intimate, but the experience is galvanizing nonetheless.

The proceedings begin with audience members segregated into “clans” such as Cawdor and Glamis and segregated into various rooms awaiting entrance into the drill hall. The groups are escorted separately down a dimly lit path through what looks like a barren field before being led to their seating areas. (There’s a certain gimmickry to these elaborately stage-managed elements that ultimately result in the show starting a half-hour later than advertised.)

The playing area consists of a long dirt path down the center of the hall—the torrential rainstorm accompanying the exciting opening battle sequence quickly transforms it into mud—surrounded on both sides by tiers of benches stretching high into the upper reaches of the building (the backless seats prove awfully uncomfortable over the course of more than two hours). On one end of the playing area is an altar decorated with religious images, while the other features a massive, Stonehenge-like rock formation.

Condensed to a swiftly paced, intermissionless two hours—the judicious cutting is hardly noticeable—the play is given a dramatically rousing, highly physical treatment. The actors bound from one of the muddy strip to the other, giving audience members on both sides ample opportunity to be close to the action (at least for those not seated in the upper sections), although at times it gives one the feeling of watching a tennis match.

Making his long belated New York stage debut, Branagh, whose thrilling film versions of Shakespeare include Henry V and Hamlet, is not surprisingly superb. His naturalistic speaking of the verse is wonderfully comprehensible, and his psychologically astute characterization brings unexpected emotional shadings to a role that has been played in far too perfunctory a fashion by many actors over the years, most recently Ethan Hawke in the lamentable Lincoln Center production.

He’s beautifully matched by Kingston’s emotionally and physically intense turn as Lady Macbeth. Emanating a fierce hysteria and simmering sensuality, the actress makes vividly clear the intense erotic hold the character has over her easily manipulated husband. Among the supporting players, the standouts include Richard Coyle’s commanding Macduff, John Shrapnel’s dignified Duncan, and Scarlett Stallen’s moving Lady Macduff. As the three witches, Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan exude a lithe physicality and spectral spookiness that makes their every appearance memorable.

Gripping theatrical touches abound, from the glowing dagger that mysteriously floats in mid-air to the blazing flames accompanying the more dramatic moments to the vigorously staged fight scenes in which the actors pound into the walls lining the muddy strip with ear-shattering thuds. The elaborate production elements, from Christopher Shutt’s booming sound design to Patrick Doyle’s dramatic musical score, add greatly to the overall effect, although occasional bits of dialogue are swallowed up by the cavernous space despite the amplification.

But despite its occasional problematic aspects, watching Branagh tear into one of the Bard’s meatiest roles is a privilege that is only enhanced by the incredibly imaginative theatricality of this unforgettable production.

Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. 212-933-5812. Through June 22.