Thunder and rain hurtle over the violent, staged sorrow of this new spectacle of Macbeth, installed heath and all in the gaping drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. For this production directed by Kenneth Branagh — who also takes the lead role — with Rob Ashford, it doesn’t just bring the tale of death and power to an epic scale, it throws the dirt of the battlefield in your face. At least if you’re sitting in the first couple of rows.
At one point after the stormy beginning, rain falling on the sword-fighting actors, I looked down to see some of the production mud on my arm. This Macbeth debuted last summer with the Manchester International Festival. There it converted a former church into a venue seating just under 300; in New York, the stadium-style benches hold four times that number. Dirt covers the stage which stretches between two Stonehenge-like structures straight out of a Spinal Tap fantasy, from a candlelit shrine to a vast stretch of Scottish soil plunged in fog.
But you don’t go straight there. Each audience member was assigned a “clan,” mine the ominous Cawdor, as in the Thane of Cawdor which Macbeth becomes at the beginning of the play. This turned out to segment entrance through the elaborate installation, and use the recently restored period rooms as “clan rooms” to congregate. Then as a group (of strangers) you “went to battle” to find your seats. It was a little silly, but one man in my group gamely raised his umbrella as if leading a charge as the bell chimed for the Clan of Cawdor to enter the gorgeous space.
While Branagh and his co-star Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth definitely gnaw right into their power-hungry characters, it’s really the experience of the installation that has the most lingering power. I’ve seen a lot of high-reaching art at the Armory — the surface of Mars, the world’s most monolithic swingset, computer chess — but this is fairly next level on the immersive index. New York never has any shortage of Shakespeare (the First Folio influence). That includes, even spikes, with Macbeth. From Alan Cumming in a solo show as a madman in a hospital playing all the parts, to the ongoing Sleep No More breaking it into bits through dance and exploration, it seems blood will have blood will have more blood in the thirst for the rise and fall of Macbeth.
That’s not to say Branagh’s doesn’t have its unique takes on the text itself (I’ve never seen it end with Macduff tossing Macbeth’s severed head in a sack in the mud). Branagh is thrilling to watch in the movement of the play that never slows down, and Kingston is deftly conniving and cunning in her efforts to speed up his ascent to the throne prophesied by the incredibly eerie three witches. The music does get a little Jerry Bruckheimer-esque, and the drums of war had such a pulse as to make the older ladies next to me clutch their hearts. Yet overall it’s a rather stunning show, and even if you might not leave with any new intellectual grasp on the fate of Macbeth, you leave with ample appreciation for the ambitions of Kenneth Branagh.
Macbeth continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 22.