Let me begin by saying that I am not the world's biggest fan of Kenneth Branagh, by a longshot. On the basis of his film work, I have always found him fairly smug and sometimes hammy, as if he was looking at his reflection back in the camera lens and thinking, "Why, yes! In fact I am the second coming of Laurence Olivier!" Nonetheless, I have respect for his work, so when my friend Ingrid offered me a spare ticket to see his co-production of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this week, I jumped at the chance.
This production has been lauded, for good reason, for its expansive set, which makes excellent use of the vast interior of the Armory. The last time I saw a play in an armory was in 1992, when a group of us from the Yale School of Drama made the pilgrimage to Park Slope to sit on hard folding chairs for 10 hours over two days to see Ariane Mnouchkine's epic staging of Les Atrides. It was the theatrical event of the time, and in addition to the inside-theater people-watching on offer, the atmosphere in the room felt as charged and excited as if we were about to see the Beatles reunion, or something. Anyway, the feeling inside the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday night was as close to that as I've felt in the theater in the decades since.
Audience members check in at tables as if they are registering for an event. At check-in, you are assigned to a clan and given a color-coded wristband (we were Lennox). From there, you are sent to meet your clan leader in one of the beautiful outer rooms containing ornate wood carvings and high ceilings. Your clan leader provides a program booklet covered in your clan's tartan, produced from a military-style bag on her or his belt, and leads you into the performance space. (Hooded figures give dire warnings about photography being prohibited, and man, they are not kidding -- I saw one audience member get into a screaming match with an usher and a house manager over a single snap taken after the show.)
And there the magic begins. The vast armory space has been filled with dirt, puddles, and dried grasses, with a wooden path winding through it. The edges disappear into the darkness, and you feel you are walking through a misty heath. (On the way out, a lone bagpiper plays.) Along the way, figures holding torches and wearing hoods keep you to the path, as your clan leader escorts your group up to the steeply raked seats on either side of a traverse performance space made of dirt. (Seating is on padded benches, no back support, and the play runs two hours without intermission. Like the Scots of the play, we soldiered on.) At either end of the performance space are giant stone columns with horizontal stones across them, reminiscent of Stonehenge. From the direction you approach, the spaces between them are open, but at the other end there are ancient-looking frescoes of Christ and the saints, a looming Celtic cross, and a huge bank of lit pillar candles. A hooded woman, her back to us, appears to be praying there.
The action begins -- the Weird Sisters are perched in the spaces between the columns; they appear to float. A battle takes place before us, all clanging swords and flying, filthy kilts. A light rain begins to fall on the players -- that dirt floor is now mud. You can even smell the damp dirt and wool. For the next two hours, that mud will stain the hems of Lady Macbeth's gowns. Men will fall into it. It will be rubbed on skin and cloth. In the midst of all this, while soaking in the atmosphere in the air, that sense of being in centuries-past Scotland, I think about how much the wardrobe folks must hate that goddamned set.
As the play progresses, I find myself making note of the dramaturgy and the language, the way Shakespeare's key themes of ambition, making your own fate, and taking -- and not taking -- action are explored, and particularly how he explores the differences between men and women with regard to ambition. The language is pronounced clearly and quickly, and it's easy to make out every word. I am also struck by how primitive the cultural moment depicted seems, especially in Act IV when we are shown the Witches in their most pagan ecstasy. This is a society that still has a foot in the wild, matriarchal pagan world of its ancestors, while it strives towards its patriarchal, Christian monarchy.
What I don't get is a sense of horror, of deep emotional turmoil. Branagh is better than I'd imagined -- on stage, that hammy self-regard is gone; he can't play to the camera. Alex Kingston is a strong Lady Macbeth, one without the drag-queenish villainy sometimes seen in the role. There is blood, but not very much of it, and as the mud dries, I start to get a feeling that it's there to serve as some kind of metaphor, as much as it is to create a world -- See how everyone is muddied by Macbeth's ambition! It seems a little glib to me. There is ample sword fighting, but it's very safe and choreographed. When Macduff's wife and son are killed before us, I feel little tension, and that is a scene in which a woman is forced to watch her child murdered before her. Her death is so gracefully choreographed that it looks more like a pas de deux than a war crime.
Macbeth can be played as a real gorefest and horror movie, and I'm not saying it has to be, but I do think that it needs a rawer sense of emotion than what was staged here. Part of the problem may be the very vastness of the space, in which we're all peering down at this narrow trench. The traverse stage itself is limiting -- much of the activity involves actors striding or running up and down the corridor.
There are some nice moments and some good uses of the vastness of the space, as when the approaching armies begin to enter from far across the Armory, carrying their "leavy screens." In the banquet scene, two long wood tables are placed together at the center. When Banquo takes Macbeth's seat, the performers gently pull them apart to make a passage for the ghost, then push them back together. It's a lovely moment of simple stage magic. Less lovely are the carefully crafted but rather too flashy holographic daggers Macbeth sees before him. I'm not sure why any effects are needed -- does the audience need to see these at all? It distracts from focusing on what is happening for Macbeth at that very moment.
Better is Kingston's playing of the handwashing scene. She stands, in a white nightgown, on top of the monolith above the bank of candles at which she had prayed at the start of the show. It is a striking image, and her terror and guilt are palpable. Similarly, it's in the simpler moments that the strength of Branagh's performance shines through. When he is still, and not pacing the traverse, we see his transformation from a laureled warrior to provoked co-conspirator, from murderer aghast at what he has done to plotter of horrors he has begun to believe he is entitled to by right. It's a clear elucidation of the man's progress from beginning to end. It reminded me of one of the greatest contemporary characters and performances I've seen of late on this theme of harnessing one's inner ruthless ambition -- Bryan Cranston's Walter White -- though Walter White displayed a visceral burning desire I wish this production had tapped more.