Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston in Epic New ‘Macbeth’

Washington Post, 6 June 2014
By Peter Marks

Forget the pesky glasses. You want a movielike experience in 3-D? Feast your eyes on Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s breathtakingly visual new staging of “Macbeth.”

The sensory immersion begins the instant the doors of the Park Avenue Armory swing open and you enter a 55,000-square foot drill hall that has been transformed into a Scottish plain. Along a winding path you pass a series of hooded figures as you approach a towering set of rocklike monoliths that resembles Stonehenge. In the distance, dozens of candles illuminate the apse of an ancient Celtic church, where a veiled woman kneels in prayer, while you find your place on one of the pair of 550-seat grandstands that flank a narrow, dirt-filled stage.

Then the rains come. A vicious hand-to-hand battle breaks out. Soldiers fall to the muddy earth.

It’s Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tale of regicide, for sure. But it also could have been called “Game of Thanes.”

Branagh co-stars with Alex Kingston in this epic and generally well-acted production, which opened Thursday night after first being staged (on a much smaller scale) at the Manchester International Festival last summer. Together, Branagh and Kingston make of the Macbeths a notably impulsive couple rushing headlong into calamity. If “Othello’s” Iago is two steps ahead of the other characters in his understanding of consequences, this foolhardy Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem two steps behind. No wonder things go south for them so quickly. And this in spite of the prophesies imparted to Macbeth by the three witches, first spied here as phantoms floating eerily among the Stonehenge slabs.

Ashford and co-director Branagh, working with inspired set and costume designer Christopher Oram, understand a contemporary audience’s appetite for spectacle. And as his direction of films of Shakespeare reveals–in particular, his 1989 “Henry V,” by far his best–Branagh is adept at underlining the exhilarating physicality of the plays. He and Ashford do so here, in scenes that aspire to the visceral thrills of film.

The vastness of the space imbues the sword-wielding battles and stately pageants with impressive sweep. In a concession, too, to our bystanders’ curiosity, the directors add to Macbeth’s report of his murder of King Duncan (John Shrapnel), a visit to the crime scene. Lady Macbeth not only takes the bloody daggers from shellshocked Macbeth’s hands, she also leads us back with her into Duncan’s chamber, where we watch her steep her hands in the king’s blood.

When she departs with the declaration to her husband, “My hands are of your color,” their toxic alliance is sealed all the more indelibly. (And since we’re more fully apprised of what she has seen, we better understand why she complains that those “damned spots” won’t come out.)

Conversely, though, the space works against some of the tragedy’s more poignant moments, such as the one in which Macduff (Richard Coyle) is informed of the brutal murders by Macbeth’s men of his wife and children. It’s difficult to commune with Macduff’s muted grief when he’s hundreds of feet away and turned toward a far-off section of the grandstand.

The performances across the board are better than respectable, if not entirely magnetic. Branagh’s admirably restrained Macbeth comes across as an able soldier with grave doubts about the unholy acts his wife urges him on to. Kingston is persuasive, too, as a woman who acts before she thinks, and then rapidly falls apart after she catches the contagion of contrition. They’re the pivotal pieces of a striking, picture-perfect “Macbeth” in which action really does speak louder than words.

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