This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on June 18, 2014. I subsequently was alerted to factual errors in the article, due to my not paying enough attention during one scene of the play; I address these errors in an author’s note at the end.
One of the greatest dramas written in the English language, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is also produced with remarkable frequency. The Scottish Play has received multiple New York City productions in the last decade, including Alan Cumming’s one-man show, Ethan Hawke’s poorly reviewed run last year, the immersive cabaret spectacle Sleep No More, and the astonishingly inventive Patrick Stewart production from 2008.
Now, the play is being mounted Off-Broadway, but with a Broadway-level budget and production values, at the Park Avenue Armory, which has been transformed into a nightmarish space. Running until June 22, the Armory’s Macbeth, co-directed by Kenneth Branagh and noted Broadway director Rob Ashford, is a stunning sensory experience, although it never quite reaches the emotional heights contained within the text.
Branagh is one of his generation’s leading Shakespeare interpreters, having starred in many of the Bard’s plays and directed several films – Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, In the Bleak Midwinter, Hamlet, and As You Like It – derived from the classic plays. These 400-year-old plays are familiar ground for him. While Branagh’s works are rarely subtle (he loves melodrama and grand theatrics), they have been consistently of high quality, so I entered the Armory with high expectations.
Ashford and Branagh, working with production designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin, have labored hard to create a distinctive experience for audience members. Upon entering the building, visitors are separated into historical Scottish clans; these groups then enter the Armory’s vast drill hall one by one. When the doors are thrown open, no sign of a modern drill hall is visible. Rather, Oram and Austin have created an immense Scottish heath, complete with fake mud and stone paths, shadows, and torch-bearing knights. As audience members trudge through this mucky environment, past stone columns evoking Stonehenge, and take their seats amid wooden bleachers, a constant drone of white noise gradually builds in the background. (David Lynch would be proud of this sonic unpleasantness.) Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) lights dozens of candles at a stone altar, dwarfed by a hanging brass crucifix.
The cumulative effect is both impressive and unsettling, and certainly far grander in scale than the typically boxy Broadway theater. Huddling on bleachers, with the pagan Stonehenge on one side and a rough-hewn Christian chapel on the other, one feels transported to an ancient, primal Scotland.
The plot of Macbeth is common knowledge today. The valiant general Macbeth (played by director Kenneth Branagh) encounters three witches, who tell him that he shall become king of Scotland. Intrigued, he and Lady Macbeth murder current King Duncan (an imperious John Shrapnel) and ascend to the throne. Macbeth becomes increasingly bloodthirsty, slaughtering his ally Banquo (portrayed with bluster and bravado by Jimmy Yuill), but also suffers from some measure of guilt as he hurtles toward doom. The play leaves it ambiguous whether the witches know the future and Macbeth is fated to fall, or if the witches invent false prophecies for Macbeth, making the general’s evildoings a matter of free will run amok. This is unsettling material loaded with plenty of bloodshed, although Branagh’s team uses fake gore sparingly.
Despite mastering the lighting, ambience, and production design, the artists are somehow off the mark in regard to the text. Branagh opens the show with a wild sword fight, staged in the mud arena at the center of the bleachers, and drenches his actors with artificial rain and wind. It looks great, but isn’t really necessary. Later, to compensate for the extra battle scenes and to keep the play’s running time short, Branagh and Ashford delete several scenes that add much to the play’s thematic richness. In other words, the directors have reduced dialogue and character development in favor of action spectacle.
Most egregiously, the directors have deleted Act 3, Scene 2, which is central to the plot as written by Shakespeare. In this scene, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth swap their psychological places. Macbeth transitions from reluctant thug to vicious dictator, while the previously bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth starts to express reservations about the murders. By not performing this scene, Branagh’s Macbeth remains sort of passive and, oddly, likeable. It may be Branagh’s deliberate intention to make his Macbeth sympathetic – a calculating general who seizes an opportunity, rather than an increasingly ruthless dictator – but he stubs his toe by not fully embracing Macbeth’s path to damnation.
This is not to say that Branagh is a bad Macbeth; he is very athletic in the battle scenes, he stalks the stage muttering about his options, and he becomes rather intimidating in the final scenes. Still, he’s not one of the all-time great Macbeths, like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart. It’s a shame that Branagh, who in the past played a passionate Henry V and an intense, disciplined Hamlet, fails to fully embrace Macbeth’s darkness. Perhaps Branagh prefers to play the hero than the villain.
The loss of Act 3, Scene 2 also hurts the character arc for Lady Macbeth. Alex Kingston is impassioned and convincing as Lady Macbeth in individual scenes, although some of her dialogue in the play’s first hour tips too far into the style of overacting once favored by Laurence Olivier and his peers in the mid-20th century. However, without the chance to begin to express doubt in Act 3, Scene 2, Kingston’s Lady Macbeth jumps abruptly from being murderous to being insane with guilt. Had Kingston been allowed to show the beginnings of Lady Macbeth’s madness, her arc would have felt more complete. Like Branagh’s Macbeth, Kingston’s Lady Macbeth is certainly not bad, but she’s not transcendent in the role, either. It’s unfortunate, for Kingston, like Branagh, is a Extending this tax best credit cards for one year would cost $12 billion over the next decade. talented performer.
Even with the problems in the lead roles, there are many commendable performances in this production. The three witches, portrayed in mud-caked, polyphonic glory by Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan, cavort about the stage with spastic, nefarious glee. In a nifty bit of stagecraft, the witches float in the air between the Stonehenge columns while heckling audience members. John Shrapnel plays multiple roles aside from King Duncan, making it fun to identify the actor beneath various disguises. Tom Godwin is endearingly drunken as the Porter, making the character less ominous than in other productions of Macbeth. Finally, Richard Coyle is a scene-stealer as the heroic Macduff, who loses his family to Macbeth’s assassins, then returns to kill Macbeth in the final battle. Coyle’s Macduff is by turns confident, fiercely moral, and touchingly emotional, and the actor brings an engrossing ferocity to his climactic duel with Macbeth. Coyle is unforgettable in the role.
There are sublime moments in the show, too. At one point, when Macbeth surveys the countryside and decides to kill Banquo, unseen stagehands carry lamps through the distant heath, an eerie sight that evokes distant phantoms passing through the night. The mud and rain add much to the atmosphere, and it is fun to watch squirming audience members in the front rows dodge the flying elements. Finally, the witches’ cauldron is rendered most inventively. Men of the company writhe unseen beneath a large canvas tarp, chanting in unison, and occasionally shooting up through the canvas, only to be sucked back down into the collective.
Nonetheless, the show doesn’t fully take flight, due to the problems with Branagh and Kingston’s performances and the edits made to the script. The wooden bleachers also become a trial – while cushioned, the bleachers lack even the most rudimentary of seatbacks. (The Wall Street Journal has opined about the subpar seating, as well.) As such, it eventually becomes rather uncomfortable to watch the Armory’s Macbeth. Furthermore, the sound design is terrible, with actors often going unmiked and thus hard to hear. On the day I attended the production (June 8), it was impossible to hear Branagh’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, since he spoke softly and was unmiked. For a play with such exorbitantly expensive ticket prices, it is almost criminal that audience members cannot hear the actors in fully amplified sound.
To conclude, Branagh and Ashford’s Macbeth is visually remarkable, yet somewhat disappointing. Although the show certainly is entertaining, it succeeds more as an arena spectacle than as the truly emotional and terrifying drama Macbeth should be. In some ways, I regret not giving this show a full endorsement, since I’ve enjoyed Branagh’s past interpretations of Shakespeare and went into the Armory with high hopes, based on some of the reviews for this production. But I’d be less than honest if I said the Park Avenue Armory’s Macbeth was the definitive production of the Scottish Play in recent years. It’s a tale full of sound and fury, not signifying nothing, but signifying less than Shakespeare intended.
Readers have pointed out that Branagh DID include Act 3, Scene 2. My bad. AND YET: The fact that I didn’t pick up on the scene shows that I, as an audience member, had checked out mentally. The other audience members around me voiced similar opinions as we shuffled out – that the show dragged in places and seemed occasionally overlong, when it should not have done so, and when other productions have not felt so sluggish.
I am at fault for missing out on a scene’s proper inclusion, but Branagh and Ashford are at fault for failing to mine the play for full dramatic effect, and for letting the proceedings get tedious.
The cover photo is archived from the Daily Pulp layout, but originally is from here: