It Will Have Blood (Mud, Too)
Branagh Brings His Visceral ‘Macbeth’ to the Armory
Excerpted from New York Times, 15 May 2014
Any new production of “Macbeth” has a lot to overcome, including history, tradition, expectation and the participants’ own relationship to the material. For the actor and director Kenneth Branagh, this meant years of thinking about the play, biding his time and concocting and discarding various ideas (some cleverer than others) for how to stage it.
One version was set in the 25th century. “This was going to be in a dystopian universe, and Duncan was going to be the head of King Enterprises, a global multimedia company,” Mr. Branagh said recently. “Macbeth and Banquo were going to be the masters of the universe out there in a kind of Blade-Runnered, neoned world.”
In fact, that was not what happened at all, Mr. Branagh said, chuckling a little at himself as he laid out how his thinking had progressed. He was speaking in the Park Avenue Armory, the closest thing to an early-medieval Scottish castle as you are likely to find in Manhattan, its dark atmospheric moodiness a dramatic contrast to the Upper East Side’s light, modern-day straightforwardness. This is where Mr. Branagh’s muscular, bloody, fast-paced “Macbeth,” in which he stars and, with Rob Ashford, directs, is to open on May 31 after its premiere last year at the Manchester International Festival.
The play, with Alex Kingston as a sexy, up-for-it Lady Macbeth, had a triumphant run, with critics raving especially about Mr. Branagh’s physically grueling, emotionally nuanced performance in one of the world’s great roles — the first time in a decade he had appeared onstage in a Shakespeare production. In The Guardian, Michael Billington compared Mr. Branagh’s Macbeth to Laurence Olivier’s and said the show was a reminder of “what an intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor he is.”
With a lifetime steeped in the material and a gift for speaking 400-year-old poetry as perfect naturalistic prose, Mr. Branagh, rugged and bearded at 53, is one of the most subtle and fluent interpreters of Shakespeare around. He speaks about “Macbeth” as if it were an old if hard-to-pin-down friend, and you get the feeling that given the slightest encouragement, he could happily recite the whole thing off the top of his head, along with pages of notes on the text.
Mr. Branagh has never appeared onstage in New York, and this “Macbeth” comes at an interesting point in his career.
Known early on for his full-blooded approach, on screen or in the theater, to “Hamlet,” “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” Mr. Branagh later branched out into regular movies. He mocked the actorly potential for pomposity as the lushly coifed, perennially self-regarding Gilderoy Lockhart in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” and recently received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn”; on television, he played the world-weary title detective in the moody BBC series “Wallander.” Along the way, he received a knighthood, and, somewhat unexpectedly for someone now officially called Sir Kenneth, he has found a successful sideline directing big-budget Hollywood blockbusters: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit“ (in which he also starred, as a Russian villain) and the comic-book action movie “Thor.”
“Macbeth,” then, seems to be a return to his roots. While there is still a great deal more Shakespeare left to do if he wants to — Lear, Leontes, Claudius, for instance — these things tend to present themselves organically rather than be mapped out as part of some grand plan, he said.
“I definitely feel as though some more Shakespeare is coming my way,” he said. “But I try to be a creature of instinct, and I never assume that anything is on your dance card, particularly. The chance to play these roles is so exciting and unusual, and so the care I take has been to find the right circumstances. There are plenty of performances of this play, of Shakespeare, so the question becomes: Do you have anything new to offer?” (His performance caps an unusually plentiful season for Shakespeare in New York, with Ethan Hawke starring in “Macbeth” on Broadway only a few months ago.)
Mr. Branagh wanted to play Macbeth, but also to direct “Macbeth,” and he knew that to do both he would need a collaborator. This was Mr. Ashford, the experienced American choreographer turned director (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” “Promises, Promises”), who, it turned out, had never before directed Shakespeare.
The two surgically trimmed the play, jettisoned the intermissions and staged it as a headlong rush of breathless action, each scene blending rapidly into the next, for a production that clocks in at just over two hours. The actors have no time to stand around in dramatic tableaus or engage in tour-de-force declamatory oration all by themselves; the audience is pitched right into and pulled along by the momentum.
“I’m on the outside, and he’s on the inside,” Mr. Ashford explained, “with him coming at it from a more informed view of how one does Shakespeare, and me coming at it more from the side of the show maker, with the tempo, the pacing, the staging, how to move it, how to make it this visceral production.”
Rather than looking to the future, the idea that went out the window some time ago, the play goes back to a distant past as the playwright himself seems to have envisioned it: a wild ancient Scotland poised between paganism and order, between the law of the sword and the law of man. Macbeth and the other men wear heavy cloth-draped kilt ensembles, looking fierce and macho in the way that only Scots (or people pretending to be Scots) can while dressed, basically, in skirts.
The play moves from the supernatural weirdness of the first scene straight into the narration of an epic offstage battle. But in this production, the battle is shown onstage: a fierce, wet, muddy, bloody, intricately choreographed extended fight that takes place inches away from the audience. (Unlike “Rocky,” across town, it has no referee.) Audience members in the front rows, sitting on either side of the transverse stage down the middle, sometimes get sprayed with dirt, fake blood and water from the rain machine.
“I’m not a fight choreographer, but I drew the pictures just like I would design a dance, and I used my sense of how to build something as you would build a number in a musical,” Mr. Ashford said. “It has to start with something, go to something else, go to something else. And then all of it has to go toward a final moment. You can’t keep the same pace the entire time or show 20 guys battling the entire time. You have to get everyone on board, and then show the specifics.”
In Manchester, the play was presented in a tiny space, a deconsecrated church seating just 200 people, 100 on either side of the stage. Here, in the Armory’s great drill hall, the space is many times bigger, but the action takes place in a manageably small stage set up at one end, with 500 audience members on each side, said Christopher Oram, the set and costume designer. (The rest of the hall is being made up into a heath that the audience, divided at the door into various “clans” affiliated with the rivalries onstage, will have to trudge through to get to the seats). As in Manchester, they will be seated in deliberately uncozy wooden bleachers that force them to remain alert, almost as participants in the action.
“The idea is of using the mud and rain to get the pagan and earthy quality,” Mr. Oram said. “You get the sounds and the smell and the immediate experience of a play drenched in blood and mud.”
At first, he said, he was nervous that audience members seated in the “blood and water zone,” as he called it, would resent being splattered by battlefield byproducts. “It’s not like a theme park, where we’re going to hand out plastic ponchos,” he said. “But then we realized that everybody was kind of into it, like it was a badge of honor.” Some audience members even returned for a second bout, wearing their dirtied clothes from the time before.
The big-action opening means that the first time we hear Macbeth speak, he is out of breath and full of testosterone, having just “unseamed” — that is, disemboweled — someone right in front of us.
“What we wanted to do was have the audience and the actors really sit in the middle of that adrenalized frenzy,” Mr. Branagh said. As a contrast to the “dry approach, the intellectual approach, the metaphysical approach” that some directors take toward “Macbeth,” he said, he felt the material was better served by a quicker pace, in speaking as well as action, everything hurtling toward the inevitable tragic climax. That means that the characters have no time to reflect, that their decisions come in the heat of their charged, emotive, post-battle rush.
This in turn helps address one of Shakespeare’s perennial challenges: how to make plausible his characters’ near-instantaneous transformations — in this case, Macbeth’s journey from loyal soldier to murderous megalomaniac, in what seems almost to be midsentence.
Mr. Branagh can trace his love of “Macbeth” straight back to the moment when, at the age of 12 or so, he saw a paperback lying on the kitchen table at his family’s house in Reading, its cover illustrated with a mesmerizing image of three witches in a kind of “graphic, blocky style,” he said. It was his older brother’s school copy of “Macbeth,” possibly the first Shakespeare Mr. Branagh had ever seen.
He was hooked. He would go on to read it many times and see many productions of it. And though he is not superstitious — he is perfectly happy to use the word “Macbeth” rather than calling it “the Scottish play,” as many theater people do on the ground that bad luck seems to follow various productions, and they do not want to tempt fate — Mr. Branagh has held on to that original copy through all these years.
It contains his brother’s schoolboy notations, his own notes and the cuts he made for the current production. He used it to learn his lines, and — bolstered and reinforced with tape administered by his wife to prevent it from falling apart — the paperback will be with him in New York.
It reminds him, he said, of his long, evolving engagement with “Macbeth.”
“It goes beyond something that one can talk about,” he said. “The part starts to play you, and the evening starts to take on its own form. You have a sense of being a vessel for something much bigger than yourself.”