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'Macbeth': Theater Review

Kenneth Branagh in 'Macbeth' - P 2014
Stephanie Berger
Kenneth Branagh in "Macbeth"

The Bottom Line

Fasten your kilts and sporrans, it's going to get nasty.

Venue

Park Avenue Armory, New York (runs through June 22)

Cast

Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Richard Coyle, Scarlett Strallen, John Shrapnel, Alexander Vlahos, Jimmy Yuill, Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan, Tom Godwin

Playwright

William Shakespeare

Directors

Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh stars as the murderous thane, with Alex Kingston as his ruthless consort, in this vigorous staging of the Scottish Play, directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford.

NEW YORK – Kenneth Branagh first made his mark as a screen director with his pared-down yet robust 1989 version of Henry V. His film output since then has ranged with varying success from personal projects like Peter's Friends through further Shakespeare adaptations to giant popcorn odysseys like Thor. This sensational environmental stage production of Macbeth, which Branagh stars in and co-directed with Rob Ashford, is in many ways a logical culmination of that eclectic experience -- a medieval, mystical blockbuster that combines superlative, fuss-free classical theater acting with muscular storytelling, visceral physicality and propulsive rollercoaster pacing. Oh, and lots of mud.

The production was jointly commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Manchester International Festival, premiering last July in the intimate confines of a de-consecrated church in that Northern English city. Reconfiguring their site-specific staging for the Armory's massive, 55,000-square foot Drill Hall, the directors and a brilliant design team led by Christopher Oram have created a traverse stage flanked on two sides by steeply raked spectator stands. A Middle Ages jousting tournament would look right at home here. But the immersive aspect kicks in even before we get there.

Upon arrival, the audience is divided into clans and split off into various rooms showcasing military history. A glass or two of wine is served before druids in hooded cloaks carrying flame torches usher us along a path through the eerie haze of a vast, dirt-floored heath. At one end of the actual playing space, Oram has sculpted imposing Stonehenge-like monoliths, while at the other, Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) stands with her back to the incoming crowd, silently invoking the spirits at an altar of votive candles and weathered frescos.

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The opening battle -- during which Branagh's Macbeth and his men successfully crush an attempted rebellion against Duncan, King of Scotland (John Shrapnel) -- takes place in a downpour that turns the field to mud. Making remarkable use of the sprawling performance area and the audience's proximity to the actors, the violence of the sword- and dagger-play gets the drama off to a thrilling start -- so much so that the front-row patrons probably don't even mind getting a large mouthful of rain spat in their faces by the victorious Macbeth.

It seems inconceivable that despite a distinguished theater career that began in his native Northern Ireland and has continued uninterrupted in the U.K. for three decades, Branagh is only now making his New York stage-acting debut. Not only is Macbeth an ideal role for him, with his ginger head, ruddy handsomeness and steely gravitas, but at 53, he’s also the perfect age to embody a warrior hero making a furious grab for power before his time is up. Branagh's Macbeth is not a man given to thoughtful reflection but to instinct, action and increasingly, to fear and involuntary glimmers of conscience, making him a surprisingly human tyrant.

In an intermission-less production that rarely pauses for breath during its two-hour duration, the usurper's jockeying for throne and title has been stripped of politics and reason, and de-intellectualized into something closer to raw pagan lust. There's no doubt that this Macbeth is in carnal and emotional thrall to his manipulative wife -- he can't keep his hands off her when he returns from the battlefield. But there's also something almost primal driving his characterization from within, an innate force of darkness fed by the cryptic prophesies of the Weird Sisters.

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Played by Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan, the witches are an uncommonly nubile trio here, darting around like snickering J-horror waifs, with their eyes glowing and their bodies writhing in orgiastic pleasure through each new bout of bloodshed. Their "Double, double toil and trouble" incantation is delivered in a state of convulsive possession, as they conjure a churning human soup out of flames.

Fluidity and urgency are the production's keynotes, frequently amplified by the pounding of composer Patrick Doyle's war drums. Testosterone runs high throughout, even extending to Kingston's driven Lady Macbeth. Playing against the soft womanliness of her physical appearance, the former Royal Shakespeare Company member draws a circle around herself in the earth in her "Unsex me" soliloquy. With that gesture she liberates her capacity for male cruelty to a degree that both beguiles and frightens her husband, while also triggering her gradual descent into insanity. From the moment she persuades Macbeth to seize his chance and kill the King while he's sleeping under their roof, the couple's fate is sealed, even as they shrink from it in terror or madness.

Theatergoers who insist on poetic oratory and subtle textual exploration might be resistant to Branagh and Ashford's bold directorial approach. But this is a riveting staging, unblinking in its lucidity as it exposes the ugly essence of power and brutality with a starkness that makes it impossible to look away. Just the use of the long corridor-like performance space alone is mesmerizing, often requiring the quick attention shifts of a tennis match.

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The large ensemble contains no weak links. In addition to the exciting central performances of Branagh and Kingston, Richard Coyle's ruggedly masculine Macduff is notable, and his shattered discovery of the murder of his wife (Scarlett Strallen) and son (Dylan Clark Marshall) is among the play's most wrenching moments. Jimmy Yuill is a warmly avuncular, almost Falstaffian Banquo, which makes his apparitions as a bloody ghost all the more startling. Shrapnel brings effortless authority to the doomed King, and Alexander Vlahos as his orphaned son effectively shakes off any trace of callow youth as he finds his noble calling.

Stunning stage pictures punctuate the production, bathed in the piercing shafts of Neil Austin's sepulchral lighting. Among them is the disturbing image of the witches, who at one point appear to levitate between Oram's stone pillars (pictured below). The funeral procession for the slain King is an affecting moment of pageantry amid the barbarism. Similarly beautiful in its choreographed formality is the advance of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill, with soldiers hidden behind shields made of tree branches. And Macbeth's vision of a dagger before him brings a flourish of dark magic that echoes the play's supernatural elements.

The production's most resonant effect, however, is illustrated in a lament spoken with stirring depths of feeling by the nobleman Ross (Norman Bowman), for a country that "cannot be called our mother, but our grave." Even after tyranny is vanquished and peace and justice restored, the sorrow of death hangs like a thick mist in the air.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Richard Coyle, Scarlett Strallen, John Shrapnel, Alexander Vlahos, Elliot Balchin, Jimmy Yuill, Patrick Neil Doyle, Edward Harrison, Norman Bowman, Andy Apollo, Dominic Thorburn, Nari Blair-Mangat, David Annen, Harry Lister Smith, Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan, Dylan Clark Marshall, Katie West, Benny Young, Tom Godwin, Stuart Neal, Jordan Dean, Cody Green, Zachary Spicer, Kate Tydman

Directors: Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram

Lighting designer: Neil Austin

Music: Patrick Doyle

Sound designer: Christopher Shutt

Fight director: Terry King

Illusion consultant: Paul Kieve

Presented by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, in association with Colin Callender

Stephanie Berger