Making his New York acting debut in a visually stunning production of Macbeth that he codirects with Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh plays the Scottish king-slayer as an action hero who chases headlong into battle and only pauses to consider the consequences of his actions afterward, to undeniably tragic effect. It’s a bold interpretation that suits a production that unfolds at a furious clip — and places the audience just inches from the action.
Theatergoers enter NYC’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory, where the show runs through June 22, grouped in clans and led by hooded figures carrying torches. They cross a stone path through a heath that even seems to smell of peat, and are seated in steep bleachers (padded but with no chair backs), two sets of which face each other. In between there’s a narrow, dirt-covered corridor where the actors perform within arm’s reach of the first-row patrons. Indeed, the front walls tremble during the opening battle as soldiers careen into the embankment and leave muddy handprints thanks to a drenching rain that falls from overhead.
It’s in this visceral, well-choreographed opening fight scene that we first see Branagh’s Macbeth, a kilted war hero and military strategist par excellence. Breathing heavily after a battle sequence and running his hands through his rain- and sweat-soaked hair, he seems like Kiefer Sutherland deep into a 24 marathon. And the pacing of the rest of the production, which runs just over two hours without intermission, is similarly propulsive.
As Lady Macbeth, ER and Doctor Who veteran Alex Kingston is solid but slightly too histrionic — she sets the dial so close to complete hysteria in her opening scenes that she leaves herself very little wiggle room to modulate her performance later on. The rest of the cast, many veterans of the original staging at England’s Manchester International Festival last summer, is very strong. Special mention goes to Alexander Vlahos as well-spoken Malcolm, the eventual King of Scotland; the Falstaffian Jimmy Yuill as the too-trusting Macbeth cohort Banquo, and Tom Godwin, as a comically hungover servant who cracks raw eggs into his goblet and makes the most of his exit line, ”Remember the porter.”
The stagecraft is a wonder, from Neil Austin’s lighting design to Christopher Oram’s costumes and set — which cunningly evokes both a medieval church and Stonehenge, with the three weird sisters eerily straddling the space between the high stone columns. The surprising and clever appearance of daggers before an ambivalent Branagh (”Come, let me clutch thee”) is particularly effective.
Branagh, too, injects a boyishness into his Macbeth, at one point handing the bloody daggers he’s just used to kill King Duncan over to Lady Macbeth as if he were a naughty child. And in his moving final soliloquy, he inserts a lengthy pause before spitting out the word idiot as if he has only just realized the folly of his strutting and fretting upon the dirt-clumped stage. In that brief speech, the actor manages to signify just about everything about his remarkable Macbeth. A-