New York sees a lot of the Scottish Play.
Just last season, we had Ethan Hawke take on the ambitious Thane at Lincoln Center. Alan Cumming too took it on – plus the rest of the roles – in his one-man Macbeth on Broadway. I last saw the tragedy staged on a morgue-like set at BAM with Sir Patrick Stewart and a magnificent Kate Fleetwood as Scotland’s most bloodthirsty couple. Then there was Liev Schrieber in the Park – a tedious version for completists only. (The unbearably muggy weather that evening is responsible for at least half of that grumpy critique.) And of course, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More has become an institution in immersive theater and a “cultured New Yorker” test, where masked audience members wander from room to room and watch (and sometimes participate) as a burlesque-like version story plays out.
So, in the grand scheme of our perpetual fascination with Macbeth, what purpose does a new production serve? If it brings Kenneth Branagh to our city for what is unbelievably his first New York stage appearance, that might just be enough. Add Alex Kingston (also making her New York theater debut) as his lusty bride, master of Broadway spectacle Rob Ashford, and the Park Avenue Armory, the grandest non-traditional theater space we’ve got, and okay, okay, we want it!
The Armory also bills its production as an “immersive” one, though don’t expect any bloody dancers writhing against you. We’re talking tradition here. Fine, upstanding, classic Shakespeare. But so much of it! Branagh’s Macbeth isn’t recast as a WWII-era dictator, a mental patient, or whatever it is that roams the halls at the McKittrick Hotel. He’s the Thane of Glamis and a soldier. He wears a kilt – and quite well, might I add. We’re in 11th Century Scotland, and, from the moment the audience makes it past the will-call table, the Armory wants us to know it.
Audience members were assigned to an actual historical clan based on our seat locations. And for lack of a budget to outfit us all head to toe in our family tartan, we were given Livestrong-style rubber bracelets bearing our clan’s name. From there, we were encouraged to explore the Armory’s rooms before reporting to the Ross clan’s headquarters, fifteen minutes before showtime. The building does its duty by placing visitors in a not-so-distant history when the military and the nobility were one and the same – it was the home of the first volunteer militia that formed in 1861 after President Lincoln called for troops and listed some of New York’s most fancypants names on its roster. After admiring many a fireplace, bronze bust, and dangerous-looking chandelier, we met up with the rest of our kinsman to, as the performer-ushers declared, “go into battle.” We picked up programs emblazoned with our name and an inside cover explaining the clan system and the history of the noble Ross. “Tonight,” our programs told us, “Ross marches with Macduff against the ambitious Thane.” Oh, goodie. We win.
Room by room, clan by clan, an army of a house staff leads the audience to their seats. (This show must be a House Manager’s nightmare.) And even if you can’t make this production, I urge you to see anything in this building. The Wade Thompson Drill Hall is like a moderately-sized airplane hanger, which enables directors’ imaginations to run wild when it comes to usage of the space. A guy dressed like a druid opened the Hall’s massive doors for us and we looked out into what, for all the world, looked like a foggy Scottish heath. A winding stone path leads to the actual “theater.” And outside of that path, three witches squirm and crawl in the moss. It’s creepy, my friends. I wasn’t 100% convinced that Banquo’s ghost wasn’t going to grab me and drag me off somewhere if I lagged too far behind.
Oh yes, the play. The theater starts 45 minutes before the lights even go down, so the transition is seamless. The audience sits in bleachers on either side of a long, rectangular “stage.” And by “stage,” I mean “box of dirt.” Huge Stonehenge-style columns sit on either side. One side is illuminated with dozens of candles. The other is bare, and the mysterious wilderness we walked through on the way to Section 9 lies right beyond. Rob Ashford may seem an unconventional choice for a faithful, UK-born Shakespeare adaptation, being known as he is for helming snazzy Broadway musicals like Thoroughly Modern Mille and How to Succeed… But clearly, spectacle is what Branagh was looking for and spectacle is what Ashford can deliver. The battle that brings Macbeth the King’s favor is a vicious, rainy brawl that transform the stage into a mud pit. (Every character who sets foot there after it is instantly marked by the inescapable grime underneath him. And her.) Fight choreographer Terry King and the ensemble have created one of the most authentic looking sword fights I’ve seen. It’s a miracle that no one slips and face-plants into the muck or takes a prop sword to the face. The everyday brutality of this world is a given, where men can be disemboweling their enemies one moment and cheerfully clapping each other on the back the next.
For a truly great Macbeth, the production has to convincingly place the terrestrial violence and the mysticism of the fates in the same sphere. Branagh and Ashford get it right by not imposing too much concept on the Weird Sisters. One of my theater pet peeves is a director overdoing it on the witches three. Tattered robes, a few high-pitched wails, and some light wirework and we are totally good here. If you guessed that they appear from the more eerie side of the stage, then congratulations, you are halfway to a theater degree. Visually distinguishing civilization from wilderness isn’t exactly revolutionary in Macbeth, but it’s the way that this production defines these concepts spatially that really pulls us in. I won’t give away Lady Macbeth’s entrance for you (Spoilers!), but let’s just say that she doesn’t begin this journey in power-hungry depravity.
The power balance between Macbeth and his Lady shifts from adaptation to adaptation. Branagh and Kingston play the two like partners-in-crime. Sexy, hot-for-each-other partners-in-crime. They can’t keep their hands off one another and that passion translates into a relentless appetite for power. Branagh obviously delivers Shakespearean soliloquies as effortlessly as you please. (“I woke up like this.” – Branyoncé.) His are tinged with more fire than your average Thane’s. And Kingston’s Lady betrays more trepidation and fear than actresses who play her like a one-note femme fatale. And again, the movement and placement of each character at any given moment sets them somewhere on the scale from primitive desire to worldly duty. As Kingston delivers her “unsex me here” speech, she is being pulled – though she resists – from the altar-like side stage down to the witches’ domain. Though these Macbeths don’t seem to be the victims of the fates so much as their accomplices. It’s as if they were just waiting for a reason to throw over their polite, aristocratic identities. And when your day job is to murder as many of your neighbors as possible, is full-on savagery such a momentous leap?
Kingston and Branagh are supported by a stellar cast- many of whom, we noted while reading the program, have roles in Branagh’s upcoming live-action Cinderella. (WHERE IS OUR TRAILER, DISNEY?) A powerful original score was composed by Patrick Doyle, whose credits include Goblet of Fire and Gosford Park. And at a tight, intermission-less two hours (shorter than your average superhero movie), this Macbeth is as exciting and satisfying a piece of summer entertainment as you can find.
Have you seen this production, readers? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!