Branagh’s ‘Macbeth’ provides epic Shakespeare experience

Hollywood Soapbox logoNEW YORK — Kenneth Branagh, one of the most accomplished interpreters of William Shakespeare’s work, has brought his mega Macbeth to the Park Avenue Armory in midtown Manhattan. The epic-scale production, co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, couples a sweeping vision with a tight reading of the text. Form and substance are beautifully molded together, providing audience members the chance to see a play perfectly residing on that fascinating line between theatrical and cinematic.

Audience members fetch their tickets from the Park Avenue Armory lobby and are given wristbands identifying them with a Scottish clan name. I headed with the rest of the Ross party to the second-floor holding area of the characteristically rustic armory. Programs are customized for each clan, and white wine is offered free of charge (well, it’s included in the ticket price).

Minutes before the production begins, each clan descends the grand staircase and awaits its turn to enter the proper theater. With a thunderous gong of a bell, the armory’s doors open. The sight that audiences are met with is truly astonishing, and will likely draw parallels to Sleep No More, that other Macbeth interpretation running farther downtown. A dark pathway stretches across a deadened battlefield. Smoke floats heavy over this tortured land. Theatergoers sit in bench seats, flanking the rectangular play space. On either side of the voluminous stage are symbolic sets begging for further contemplation: One side looks like a crypt, or maybe a church, the other is a quasi-Stone Henge, much darker in tone. They seemingly represent heaven and hell, life and death, light and darkness.

The action (and I do mean action) begins with a massive battle sequence that finds Branagh’s Macbeth fighting off one victim after another. After the swords stop clanging and the bodies pile up, the Bard’s text takes over. Because of the constant action, many of the lines of dialogue are accompanied by simultaneous catchings of the breath. It’s a marvel to see how the dialogue fits with the action. Thankfully the sound design is pitch perfect.

Branagh provides a fine portrayal of the title character, exuding a militaristic leadership at one point and conniving back-handedness at another. His relationship with Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) is vigorous; the two feed off each other’s energy, displaying their desires and malevolence with such aplomb. Kingston is stately as Lady Macbeth, and then she convincingly falls into madness. Her “out damn spot” scene, taking place removed from the dirt of the main stage, is a realistic approach. Her faulty visions seem to weed themselves into her brain. This is no theatrical madness; it’s actually quite real and, consequently, sad.

The rest of the company, which seems to be endless, provide near-perfect readings of Shakespeare’s dialogue. From Banquo to MacDuff to the Three Witches, there’s not a weak member in the cast. The witches, usually the roles that receive the most radical interpretation from production to production, are presented in a fairly unique manner. They are devilish beings who rise and fall around the stone pillars that bookend the stage. They grimace and scowl, coupling their recognizable lines with a debauched physicality.

Ashford and Branagh, as directors, keep the story plotting along at a fast pace. There’s no intermission, and the action has been trimmed to a duration of two hours and 10 minutes. The final scenes, including the warning of Birnam Wood, continue the sheer theatricality of the proceedings. It’s quite easy to picture these bench-style seats set up on a battlefield in Scotland. The enormity of the Park Avenue Armory allows the audience members to transport themselves away from a Manhattan etting and into an historical one. There’s no proscenium. There’s no trappings of 2014. There’s no hint of an outside world. We are locked in, awaiting the outcome of this tragic tale and the bewitching devolution of its characters.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Click here for more information on Macbeth. The production continues at Park Avenue Armory through June 22.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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