“It’s like Sleep No More, but with ACTUAL SHAKESPEARE!” That was my main thought immediately after entering the Park Avenue Armory for Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, in town until June 22. That’s because this production isn’t just a performance of Macbeth; it’s an experience. Upon walking into the Armory, you’re encouraged to wander around through all the rooms in front: they’re stunning, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled — your basic gorgeous 19th century design. In each area you can read information on the various clans of tenth-century Scotland as well as the history of the Armory building. Eventually you wander into your own clan room, and are led into the theatre with the rest of your group. (I was a MacDuff, as you can see from the playbill.)
At which point Macbeth really begins to astonish. You’re led through a barren, moorish field, which sets a very dark and foreboding tone after the pageantry of the clan rooms. After being led past a Stonehenge-like stone circle, you’re brought to bleachers on either side of the action. The production (directed by Rob Ashford and Mr. Branagh) itself is a proudly muddy 2 hour performance with lots of drums, dramatic lighting, rain, and of course, much blood and gore. It’s a passionate, intense production with few lulls. Parts go by so fast that I would find myself getting frustrated: Stop running around and let me listen to the words for a few minutes, people! Sitting in the last row might have been part of the problem. But this production was so busy dazzling and astonishing me that I had a hard time finding my way into the emotion of it.
That might also be because of the style of Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which is incredibly Shakespearean. Traditionally when I describe someone as Shakespearean I mean they have an outsized stage persona, a fierce energy. (Love him or hate him, Al Pacino was certainly “Shakespearean” in this sense in The Merchant of Venice.) But at the moment I’m thinking of this term in a different way: as a consummate member of a Shakespearean acting troupe. Mr. Branagh’s line readings are always impeccable, he’s committed, he has a deep understanding of Shakespeare, he doesn’t hog the stage, he has diction for miles. What he doesn’t have, in my view, is the ability to disappear into a character the way some actors do. He doesn’t give you the chills. His Macbeth was not worlds away from his Hamlet, or even his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, simply because he brings the same intelligence and understanding to every role. Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth gave a more outsized performance; to me she suited the production a little better than Mr. Branagh did.
It might be too late to see this Macbeth; it closes tomorrow, and I had to wait many hours in line to get a ticket. I had mixed feelings about the production, just because I feel like the (literally!) splashy parts tended to outshine the story itself. But it’s one of the more creative theatrical endeavors I’ve seen this year, and features a simply stunning use of theatrical space. Well worth a few hours in line.
My grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $21 at the box office
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes