The Macbeth now playing at the Park Avenue Armory, co-directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, achieves a remarkable theatrical feat: It makes the experience of entering and exiting the theater more exciting than watching the play itself. That’s not to say that this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, in which Branagh plays the titular tyrant, isn’t full of swashbuckling excitement, frightening depictions of murder and madness, and performers at the limits of their vocal and physical capacities. But these are the hallmarks of Macbeth in the modern age, when the 1606 play is typically rendered like a Hollywood action movie, with an antihero knocking off all the bad (well, good) guys until his own violent demise. Ashford and Branagh’s unsurprising Macbeth might have passed without much notice, or complaint, were it not for a set design that reminds us how much more this play can be.
As designed by Christopher Oram, all but a comparative sliver of the Armory’s mammoth performance space is given over to the actors. The rest is converted into a massive, dark heath, filled with grass and mud and a few giant stones, through which spectators must march on the way to their seats. Ahead of the marchers is a giant Stonehenge semi-circle, the front of which faces the thin runway-style stage. Once the audience is seated on either side, they can see an equally giant Christian altar, covered with candles, frescoes, and a heavy overhanging cross, at the other end of the stage. The overall effect is of a haunted burial ground where the ghosts of an ancient history—“our” history, since spectators are (awkwardly) divided into Celtic “clans” before entering—are regularly resurrected, reliving modern Scotland’s traumatic, blood-soaked birth. On either side of the playing area are the twin sources of cosmic authority—paganism and Christianity—whose collision lends Macbeth, and Shakespeare’s medieval plays in general, their chilling vitality. In such a setting, the story to be delivered is measured against exceptionally high standards.
Ashford and Branagh begin well, with a sudden downpour, a ferocious battle that sends actors tumbling into the walls separating them from the audience, and dialogue delivered to the heavens leaving spectators like ghosts from a more modern (but no less barbaric) future, but slip slowly and steadily into an uninspired rendition of a known commodity. For the first half of the plot, Branagh plays Macbeth as a sensual romantic, vulnerable to the flattering suggestions of others, especially women (the witches, his wife), and hardly capable of the violence he must inflict. Branagh is wide-eyed, almost childish, with a gaze alternately pleading and darting. At the sight of Lady Macbeth, played by Alex Kingston, Branagh’s Thane of Cawdor overtly begs to be dominated.
Kingston’s Lady M is all broad gestures: open hands and palms, overpronounced nouns, eyes wide with fear and possibility. At first, she presents a knowing companion to Macbeth’s innocence. But once his Macbeth is crowned king, all evidence of his inner struggle disappears, and with it whatever is interesting about the production’s interpretation. Now, Branagh snarls and paces like a threatening lion, resembling Richard III more than Macbeth. With no compelling psychodrama to play out, Kingston’s movements come to seem empty, gratuitous. All we are left to desire is the predictable end of a wicked, unnatural reign.
Among the ensemble, John Shrapnel as Duncan and Jimmy Yuill as Banquo are the strongest. Their characters are the eldest and wisest in the play, and the confidence with which they are delivered makes their demise disheartening as well as cruel. As the younger generation of heroes, Alexander Vlahos’s Malcolm displays virtue beyond his years, though Vlahos oversells the emotions of his longest scene. As Macduff, Richard Coyle is overly fond of his power and strength, presenting a noble but monstrous gladiator.
But it’s the witches who best embody the spirit of this production. Played by three ingénues (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan) covered with dirt, they seem to have no control or comprehension of the events they witness. Orgiastically overcome by their own carnival, they promise much, but, in the end, offer little in terms of a real transformation of the status quo. Their Scotland remains as bloody as ever. As for Ashford and Branagh’s Macbeth, what seems at first like conceptual coups turn out, in the end, to be empty spectacle, offering more than a little excitement and delight, but no greater rewards for everyone’s trouble.
Macbeth runs at the Park Avenue Armory through June 22.