J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Macbeth: Branagh Storms the Armory

Much to the regret of cineastes and Shakespeare connoisseurs, we can only speculate about what Olivier’s aborted Macbeth film could have been. At least we have auteurist adaptations from Orson Welles, Roman Polankski, and (sort of) Akira Kurosawa. Sir Kenneth Branagh (who picked up his fifth Oscar nod playing Olivier in My Week with Marilyn) has not yet helmed a big screen version of the Scottish Play, but patrons attending his new staging at the Park Avenue Armory will feel like they have seen it anyway, in widescreen 3D. An extremely cinematic Macbeth directed by Rob Ashford & Branagh officially opened last night, thoroughly dominating the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall (promo here).

When transplanting their critically acclaimed Manchester International Festival production to the Armory, Ashford and Branagh decided to go large—really, really large. Seriously, we are talking big here. It is hard to describe the initial awe experienced walking to one’s seat through a recreation of Scotland’s moors, illuminated by hooded torchbearers, under the shadow of an enormous druid stone circle. That essentially covers the price of your ticket right there.

The druid stones are at one end of the stage and a massive candle-lit altar stands at the other. In between is a dirt battlefield, where Scotland’s thanes will get muddy, bloody, and dead. Two tiers of risers define the sides of the performance space, but despite their imposing size, it still feels like a surprisingly intimate viewing experience.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of set and costume designer Christopher Oram’s work. Yet, the show starts even before patrons enter, when they are assigned a clan and assemble with their kinsmen in one of the Armory’s historic chambers. (This might be a good place to send out a war yalp to Steve at Unseen Films, who made our group of cult film reviewers’ night of culture possible. Ross Clan Rules!) There is no audience participation, per se, but it puts you on notice—this will not be a typical night at the theater.

Branagh brings it right from the start, with a full-scale battle sequence that brings to mind the melee of his classic Henry V. As you really ought to know, Macbeth is initially a heroic supporter of the king. Then three witches enter. They offer up a series of cryptic prophecies and soon Macbeth is up to his neck in murder most foul. Even with all the jaw-dropping spectacle on display, Branagh and company have to get down to business at some point, but fortunately he comes to make a statement.

As an old theater pro, Branagh could project to the back row with his head wrapped in gauze. While not a huge man, his Macbeth bristles with power, suggesting a sociopathic Medieval Napoleon. Frankly, most audience members are coming to give him a standing ovation, but he truly earns it. At times, Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth might be a bit too quiet for the staging, but her one-on-one scenes with Branagh have a raw physicality that is almost shocking. (Still, probably no one will ever match the sheer force of Roseanne Ma’s psychotic breakdown in the Pan Asian Rep’s Shogun Macbeth.)

Unfortunately, several of the major thanes are rather overwhelmed by the staging, but Richard Coyle is the standout exception as Macduff. He was quite winning in Grabbers and impressively intense in Pusher, but he takes it to another level here, holding his own with Branagh. Just so we do not forget this is a Branagh show, Jimmy Yuill once again rejoins his frequent comrade as an unusually crusty and battle-hardened Banquo.

You really have to see the Armory Macbeth to fully get its full scope and impact. Ashford & Branagh have mounted what might well be the most ambitious staging of Macbeth, perhaps ever. Yet, they do not neglect the dramatic essentials. There is no need to tip toe around, referring to it as the Scottish Play sotto voce. This is Macbeth and it means business. Highly recommended for anyone who can possibly get to the Upper Eastside, Ashford & Branagh’s Macbeth ends its limited engagement on June 22nd at the Park Avenue Armory.

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