Warning: if you are planning on seeing this production of Macbeth, I’d suggest not reading further. There are spoilers about the production I would not have wanted to know beforehand.
The staging of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory was perhaps the best thing about this production, though that is not intended to damn the acting. The Armory is a vast space, the old home of the Seventh Regiment. From the outside it appears like a mock-castle; inside there are lots of ornate rooms, paintings and crafted ceilings. On entry into the Armory audience members were given a wristband with their clan identity – in my case, Ross – and told to be in a designated room fifteen minutes before the scheduled 8pm start. It soon became apparent this was largely as a means of organizing seating. At a little before the appointed hour we were called, clan-by-clan through bells and shouts, to troop through the cavernous drill hall to the racked benches. The seats were arranged in steep rows two sides of a large muddy area, flanked by monolithic semi-circles on both sides and a small raised stage with an expanse of candles at one. To reach this, the audience had to walk along a long pathway, through a heath landscape, dimly lit by torch-bearing attendants. All very evocative, which would have been much better if people had resisted the need to continue using their phones or engaging in banal conversations. This was the first night of the production – apparently still called previews, with a formal opening in a week’s time. It took a long time to get everyone seated, and the production did not begin until thirty minutes after the schedule. The setup put some people right in the action; others a long way from it – more akin to a sports stadium or arena show than a theatre. The hall went black, the witches appeared to be levitating between the monoliths, and as soon as their opening speech was done, rain fell and the battle commenced. There were several minutes of fight choreography with only a few words spoken – right into the action and a clear sense of Macbeth as a man of military action.
There were several highlights in the production, including Branagh’s delivery – largely speaking in natural conversational tones, but occasionally putting emphasis on words in ways I’d not heard before, usually successfully, but occasionally jarring. At times his words were a little indistinct – this is a vast space to fill with a voice. Alex Kingston was a very strong Lady Macbeth, with the sexual appeal of the Macbeths as a couple readily apparent. Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo was played as something of a father figure, and from the distance I was from the stage, appeared a little similar in appearance to Duncan, played by John Shrapnel. The kilts and tartan costumes were perhaps a bit too traditional, though given what has been written about the development of tartan, at the same time anachronistic. The supernatural was done well – the daggers were real, illuminated by lights and then disappearing into darkness; the appearance of Banquo as a ghost convincingly staged; and the vision of the line of kings from the witches’ cauldron enacted in a way I’d not seen done before.
It was interesting seeing this the same day as the cinema screening of King Lear with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, as part of National Theatre Live. I’m going to see that version of Lear in London later this month, so will probably say more about it then. But two things struck me about seeing the two productions together. One was that Emma Freud introduced the cinema version with a description of Beale as ‘the finest classical actor of his generation’. I’m not going to judge on the validity of the description of Beale. But the question of age is interesting – appearances can be deceiving, as Beale is actually one month younger than Branagh. Beale here is playing a old man’s role – at 53 he is surprisingly young to be taking it on. Branagh is playing a role, and playing it in such a physical way, for which he might appear to be rather old. It would not have worked to have reversed the roles in these productions. Nonetheless, while Branagh playing Lear at some future point seems almost inevitable, Beale, perhaps surprisingly, has expressed a wish to take on Macbeth again, a part he played almost ten years ago. They would doubtless be very different visions of the roles.
The second contrast comes from the production style. Despite seeing Lear on screen, this is very much a stage-production, with all the techniques of set and sound design that the National can provide. Macbeth, however, was cinematic in breadth and intent, perhaps reflecting the recent career of Branagh, who has directed the Hollywood films Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and co-directed this production with Rob Ashford. This production was run without interval, quickly cutting from scene to scene, often with the audience turning their heads like spectators at a tennis match as something happened in their peripheral vision. In this, and much else, it made use of the performance space to great effect. The marching army of Malcolm and the English, disguised by boughs from Burnham Wood, appeared from the other end of the hall, lit by torches, taking the same route the audience had just over two hours before. We did not leave the same way – a slow progression round the back of the stage, past sound and light desks and the scaffolding of the set, out into Lexington Avenue. A slow unveiling of a production that took us a very long way from New York City.
[Update: Thanks to dmfant for this link to a New York Times review, which also has a few good photographs.]