I feel very remiss in letting so much time elapse since my last post, but in my defense, I was on vacation. It was not entirely sloth. I visited my boys in Budapest and Dublin and while I’d considered lugging the Riverside Shakespeare with me, it seemed impractical (Tartt’s The Goldfinch felt weighty enough), and reading the plays on my cellphone just doesn’t feel authentic and it prevents me from pencilling notes in the margins.
While I’ve nearly finished Henry IV, Part I, and I plan to stick to the alphabetical order approach, I need to write about Macbeth. Not the play – I’ll save that for the Ms – but the performance I just saw. Kenneth Brannagh and Rob Ashford have brought their physical, powerful production from Manchester across the pond to the imposing Park Avenue Armory. How apropos to stage this violent, bloody, battle-filled play in this former military facility.
The scale is enormous; it both reminded me of and rivaled Disney. Ushers who scanned tickets assigned you one of several “clans,” and gave out the corresponding identifying rubber baller band bracelet. Mine was red and had “Robertson” printed in bold in white on it. You were free to move about the amazing edifice for a while, but had to report to your “clan hall” promptly at a prearranged time. A standard bearing your clan’s name and tartan flew over each hall. The only thing that was missing was a bagpiper, an actor dressed up like Braveheart, and overhead video screens featuring an endless loop of lush Scottish countryside vistas — but then it would have actually been a Disney ride. Thankfully Kenneth and co. raised the bar and maintained class and dignity by stooping neither to those diversions nor to selling tartan T shirts with “Macbeth: The 2014 Tour” on the back.
Our appropriately-clad “clan leader” laid down the law of the land, tutored us in our clan history (alas, we Robertsons are aligned with the ill-fated Duncan), and taught us our “clan chant.” We gave it a shot and he admonished our lack of effort so we tried again, with more gusto, and that placated him. He led us through the “castle” to the set where we followed a cobblestone path, lined with robed monks, through a misty peat bog. Passing a model of Stonehenge in more proper proportions than that featured on the Spinal Tap Tour, we filed onto our bleacher benches. Wait. Isn’t Stonehenge in the Salisbury Plain in… England? Yes. Yes, it is. I’ve been there. What was it doing here in Scotland? Never mind, though. It was way cool.
The ushers told us to keep our feet on our seat number stenciled in white on the floor. It was at this point that I really did feel like I was in the Scottish version of Pirates of the Caribbean. I half expected a mechanical Loch Ness monster to bob its head up and down in the mist. Again, thanks to Kenneth and Rob for not going that far. It may have bordered on hokey but it was immensely effective and infinitely more fun than filing into your ordinary vanilla Broadway play.
The stage, or staging area, was a rectangular rodeo corral; a mud pit betwixt the two sets of bleachers on which we perched. Stonehenge loomed at one end and a candle-covered altar at the other. The lighting, which must have been a real challenge in such an unusual space was genius. One of the daggers before Macbeth’s eyes was an illuminated cut out in the altar wall. Huge disks of lights made up of multiple bulbs resembling castle or cathedral windows shone at appropriate intervals at each end of the muddy middle.
Lucy Liu sat two rows in front of me and Noah Wylie two rows down and to the left, there, no doubt to watch Alex Kingston, his fellow ER alum splendid as Lady Macbeth. The tickets came with a Sea World-like warning about the potential to get splashed with water, blood, and mud in the first few rows and I could see why. After the wiry, agile, quirky, Golem-like witches (no old hags here) opened the play, it began to rain. Like real rain. Creating real mud, which the actors splashed in throughout the play. The action was graphic, gruesome, loud, and close. The costumes commanded respect in their unassuming, understated accuracy.
What I saw in this production more than any other, perhaps, was the love between Macbeth and his name-lacking Lady. Their passion mirrored the fighting fervor but with an affection that the latter clearly lacked. You could feel the connection between Thane, then King, and his Lady, then Queen, until the bitter end. This lovely touch added a tenderness and “human kindness” to a play otherwise very much bereft of it.
Kenneth Brannagh has never appeared on the New York stage before; our loss. The opportunity to see him so live and so close was bliss. We made eye contact several times and it was all I could do not to put my thumb and pinky up to my cheek and mouth “call me”. But I maintained decorum and so my lust for him remains hidden and unrequited.
The performances did not in any way disappoint; there was not a weak link in the entire cast. My complaints were few: At times the set layout made it difficult to hear. For example, in Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech Kenneth rolled on the ground and many of the beautiful, powerful, poignant words were lost. And at precisely two hours they clearly took liberties with the script. I don’t know the play so well that I can pinpoint what was cut, but nor do I understand why such a great Shakespearean actor would want to edit the Bard thus. Perhaps the production would have been to unwieldy unabridged, but I felt something a little intangible was lacking as a result.
This is the third NYC production I’ve seen of Macbeth in the last several years. Most recently I saw Alan Cumming play every role on his own as an inmate in a hospital for the criminally insane. Before that I took my son who was studying the play in high school to see Patrick Stewart do it. What incredible luck and joy to have had the opportunity to see these varied renditions. It reminds me so strongly how rich, versatile, and relatable Shakespeare is. Each play plays so hugely differently depending on the choices made by the producers, directors, and actors. It will never be the same play twice and you will always see something different with each new staging.
The concept and execution of the Alan Cumming version were genius; sheer genius. This one today was big and bold and and bawdy. I respect and admire Kenneth so much and would be very happy to date him (just on the off chance that he reads this). But (and I realize this might blow that chance for me), my hat’s off to Patrick Stewart for the hand’s down best portrayal of Macbeth that I’ve had the pleasure to see. I couldn’t help but feel that the performance today was one I’d seen already in Henry V – which, don’t get me wrong – was amazing. Today I saw more bravado in Macbeth than guilt or regret. Mind you, I’m splitting hairs. It was absolutely an affair to remember and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see it today, on the last day of the run.
And now, back to the alphabet. I’ll have Henry ready soon.