Waiting under the banners outside the Park Avenue Armory (photo by me)
Why keep you in suspense? The play will, but I won't: GO. Just go.
Now, for a measured review of the new production of William Shakespeare's brief, brutal, beautiful tragedy of Macbeth, on through June 22 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.
Swept from hot summertime traffic into the dark wooden peace of the Armory, it's as if you've entered a version of Glamis Castle. Attendants are everywhere, scurrying about to welcome you to your clan. Clan Angus, in our case; our friends exulted in being Macduff (my reminder that this meant they'd all be dead, save Macduff himself, in the end was ill received). After a couple of glasses of Oban in a room designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and there stood a young man in a kilt, announcing it was time for us to enter the hall.
You are ushered into the 55,000-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall with the clang of a bell and a mighty shout of the name of your clan -- and plunge immediately into otherwordly dark. Crossing a Scottish bog and blasted heath, marvel at massive standing stones and hooded guards with torches. Mud and rough stone is underfoot; tread carefully. The set for this production is simple and stunning: what looks like a bit of Stonehenge is mirrored at the other end by the same great stones turned into a Christian church. A gilt-backed, Byzantine-looking Madonna and Child have been added, and before them stands a woman in blue and white, lighting candles. She is on her knees, at prayer, through the beginning of the play -- until Act I, Scene V, when she rises to reveal herself as Lady Macbeth. The collision, or more aptly coincidence, of wicked and good is at the dark heart of Macbeth and Macbeth. In this setting, as hooded monks turn into soldiers, witches in midair oppose Madonna and Child, and the suspended fantastical dagger hangs beneath a massive crucifix, you can't forget this for a moment.
The hurly-burly of the battle, overseen by the three "weird sisters," is literally one hell of a beginning. Under falling rain, muddy men in indistinguishable tartan kill each other as the audience looks on from bleacher seats opposed across a rectangle. At some points, as the action shifts quickly from end to end of the space, our heads turned as if watching an unspeakable, violent tennis match. The witches, from the start, are overly sexy (as Macbeth's witches seem all to have been since the Polanski/Hefner film of 1971), and they speak incomprehensibly like Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder. They hang suspended from the standing stones with glittering eyes, opposed to the Christianity at the other end of the space (which, by the end, they have overrun).
Branagh is a swift, spectacular Macbeth. He does not linger over his lines, but enunciates so perfectly that even when he speaks quickly he's clear. Bitten by the spirits' prophecies, he celebrates becoming Thane of Cawdor with his wife -- a staggeringly good Alex Kingston, best known to American audiences as River Song from the BBC television series Doctor Who. When Branagh sheds his battle-bloody shirt and chases Lady Macbeth offstage, the couple's attraction, and attractiveness, send the audience rippling.
The Macbeths' turn into murderousness is instant: they're ready for it, thanks to the evil that lies in all mankind, but primed by the prophecies. It's not enough to wait for Duncan to die; Macbeth kills him, spurred cruelly on by his wife. Branagh's Macbeth is a man more sinned against than sinning; driven by his lady, he regrets his bloodiness immediately and then intermittently, as he keeps on keeping on.
Style and substance both triumph in Macbeth, with elegant physical touches complimenting and miming the language of the play. With a playful, and patronizing, kiss, Macbeth keeps from his lady the dire knowledge of Banquo's murder -- and the fact that Banquo's children, not theirs yet unborn, will be kings of Scotland. Beautiful blonde Lady Macduff screams from behind a murderer's muffling hand as her little boy gasps, "He has killed me, mother" -- and seconds later her long braid whips as a horrible grating sound announces her broken neck. Lady Macbeth, on the battlements of Inverness Castle, chills you to the core with one of the play's best-known speeches ("out, damned spot"). When she drops the candle and stares after it in horror as it falls, you are reminded of the elegant woman lighting those votive candles, and praying, at the play's beginning -- and you see in Kingston's expressive eyes the inspiration for her character's coming death in a fall, or rather leap, from those same battlements.
Branagh's last moments as Macbeth rock and reel you. From strength to strength the lines come, from the sad defeat of "I (be)gin to be aweary of the sun" and "my soul is too much charged with blood of thine" to the thrill and flame of "Blow, wind, come, wrack! At least we'll die with harness on our back" and that final "damned be him that first cries 'Hold! Enough!'" Watching Branagh at the end is like watching a fire. You know the end, but can't believe it when Macduff throws down the bloody canvas sack full of "the usurper's accursed head." Who's the usurper at the end of Macbeth, anyway? This production emphasizes the English role in defeating Macbeth. When Malcolm (an excellent Alexander Vlahos), in a perfect Estuaries accent, pronounces that all his thanes will "henceforth be earls," the first ever in Scotland, the thanes (most with Scottish accents, an echo of the accent divisions in Branagh's 1996 Hamlet?), look at each other as if to say: what have we just done? Bleed, poor country, from then on.
Tickets for Macbeth are now being scalped for thousands. Yet I cannot tell you not to go. Kenneth Branagh, give thanks to all powers that be, is playing in Shakespeare again -- alive and well and, until June 22, living in New York.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford.
Anne Margaret Daniel 2014