Macbeth At the Park Avenue Armory
By: David Sheward
Part jousting tournament, part religious rite, Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s mammoth production of Macbeth, imported from England and now at the Park Avenue Armory for a brief run, is an overwhelming s
pectacle drawing the theatergoer into the ghoulish world of the play as few stagings can. It starts with the way you are brought to your seat: patrons are divided into Scottish clans and marched into the cavernous space through set designer Christopher’s Oram’s blasted heath to one of two steep, stadium stands facing a narrow strip of playing space.
At one end is a Stonehenge arrangement of rocks-the domain of the three witches. At the other is a massive altar adorned by hundreds of candles and early Christian mosaics. Lit like a nightmarish vision by Neil Austin, this is a setting for the battle between the otherwordly and the humane for the soul of Macbeth and all Scotland.
Battle is the operative word here. Ashford and Branagh do not shy away from the bloodier aspects of Shakespeare’s dark tale of ambition and immorality. Fight director Terry King’s skirmishes and clashes are so realistic audience members in the first four rows are warned they may be splattered with mud and other base matter. I was convinced one combatant was literally getting his brains bashed in right in front of me by the ferocious Branagh as the titular Thane.
In addition to his martial and co-directing skills, Branagh delivers one of the most incisive and detailed portrayals of the role in recent memory. His Macbeth is a thoughtful leader, genuinely troubled by the grandiose predictions of the weird sisters. His transformation to murderous tyrant is a slow and deliberate one. He wisely plays down the theatrics because there are enough of them in his staging with Ashford. As Macbeth’s fiend-like queen, Alex Kingston, best-known in the U.S. for her role as Dr. River Song on Doctor Who, is almost as subtle, though she does overemphasize the lady’s two-faced protestations of innocence. Kingston demonstrates too much that Lady M. is acting when she feigns shock at the death of Duncan (Spoiler alert if you did not take high school English.) But her sleepwalking scene atop the rough-hewn altar is truly disturbing as is her relentless needling of the character’s spouse when he pulls back from their plan to slaughter their monarch.
It’s also refreshing to have a huge cast so that the procession of Banquo’s successors to the throne and the movement of Birnm Wood to Dunsinane are both truly massive. Richard Coyle is a passionate Macduff, Alexander Vlahos a noble Malcolm, and Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan seem to actually fly as the witches in this supernatural Macbeth.
Macbeth @ the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., NYC.
Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
Running time: two hours with no intermission.
$19-$210. (212) 249-5518 or www.commerce.armoryonpark.com.
Photo: Stephanie Berger