Sometimes it seems that all the nutty superstitions surrounding Macbeth — pardon me, “the Scottish Play” — come not from its association with Elizabethan witchcraft or backstage mishaps, but from the sheer difficulty of doing it well. Until this week I would have said “the impossibility,” but here (at the Park Avenue Armory) is a swift, thrilling production starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston as Mr. and Mrs., directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, that manages to solve many if not all of the classic Macbeth problems with only a small cost in seriousness. The cost in ducats — a minimum of $422 on StubHub for the few seats remaining — is slightly more substantial.
At least you can see what the money went for. The vast acreage of the Armory’s drill hall, which easily contains the custom-built 1,050-seat Macbeth Experience theater, has rarely been put to better use, except perhaps for the drilling of actual soldiers in non-Scottish wars gone by. (But they could not have been so buff as the ones in this production.) Within this overwhelming space, the play takes place on a dim strip of mud with a candlelit altar at one end and Stonehenge at the other. Tiers of extremely uncomfortable stadium-style bleachers are banked up the two long flanks. From ringside, at least, it makes for a visceral experience, the actors sometimes inches away as they fret and fight, banging the sidings that keep the audience from falling into the mud. It’s certainly a wet experience; if the spectacular rain effect doesn’t get you, perhaps you will be favored by a deliberately aimed gob of no-doubt-eBayable Branagh spit.
These demonstrations of the production’s intimacy are admittedly a bit self-conscious, as is the pre-show, which takes place in the Armory’s ancillary chambers and meeting rooms. Upon arrival, theatergoers — pardon me, clansmen — are assigned a plaid and perhaps anachronistic rubber wristband helpfully confirming their affiliation. (I was a Robertson, though I feel sure this was changed from Rabinowitz.) Handsome young extras act as minders and herders, encouraging you to cheer for your team as you are led, one clan at a time, through the mighty oaken door of the drill hall. A loud bell clangs as the eyes adjust to the world before you: a landscape of crepuscular light, obscure paths (which you must stick to), hooded figures, and runic boulders. You may recognize the effect (if you have teenage children) from the foreboding opening screens of certain video games, all mist and haunting background sound, the characters as yet unintroduced.
This folderol gave me the giggles; but no harm: Once the play begins, it is simply a very well-thought-out and executed Macbeth. And while some of the credit clearly belongs to Branagh, who has made uncommonly cogent Shakespeare a trademark, Ashford’s fingerprints are visible as well. Or should I say footprints? Not only is the copious violence uncommonly well-choreographed (the fight director is Terry King), but the overall movement of the story, both physical and emotional, has the quality of a smartly paced and well-wrought musical. In the Broadway tuners he’s staged — especially How to Succeed — Ashford’s greatest strengths have been in making production numbers seem to arise organically from both text and character, thus finessing the uncomfortable border between story and song. Here the songs are the violence, whether the opening battle scene or the rather more gruesome murders that follow, and for once they are varied and tasteful enough not to throw the audience directly out of the experience.
That welcome effect can’t be separated from the setting. Aside from the sheer spectacle of Christopher Oram’s design, the placement of the tale at the crossroads of paganism and Christianity (Stonehenge and altar) lets the audience understand that Shakespeare is showing us a moment when something about humanity is beginning to change. Religion is part of it: A clever magic trick illustrates Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me” with a crucifix of light. And part of it is the emergence of political sanity from what had previously appeared to be an endless cycle of successional violence. The production gives us the mud to show how man began to step out of it.
Surprisingly, Branagh as an actor is not the standout here. He’s remarkably energetic, physically electric, and obviously at ease with the verse. But perhaps because that verse is often so much greater than Shakespeare’s actual portraiture, he seems to rush it past us, knowing, with his director’s ear, that the character as written suffers from thinness. Not so for Lady Macbeth, who is if anything too thick with traits, most of them seeming, in ordinary performances, to conflict indigestibly. Kingston, looking cougarishly overripe, offers a more persuasive case for the character by incorporating elements of her later transformations into her earliest appearances. She is skittish, changeable, and entitled from the start. As the plan to promote her husband gets away from her, you see and believe her panic; as the panic turns to madness, you believe that, too. Also, the sexual chemistry with Branagh is hot; Lady likes it dirty. (Literally.)
The rest of the mostly imported cast is mostly fine; Richard Coyle makes an unusually credible and manly Macduff. But this production isn’t really about the acting. It’s about something more elemental, by which I don’t just mean the mud and mist. A play can be as confusing, intellectual, poetic, or metaphorical as the author and director may like, but it must be built on a fundamental allegiance to some sort of human reality. This Macbeth honors that demand with clear thinking about what truth of our nature it means to impart. It’s the only version I’ve ever shed a single tear for: not because of its death toll, but because it ends with an image of how, even with all our base impulses, we can move toward a better version of ourselves. We are not merely a horror show.
That said, you couldn’t pay me to go back and sit in those hideous backless bleachers, no matter how well they suggest the horror of medieval Scottish life. Out, damned seat!
Macbeth is at the Park Avenue Armory through June 22.