All Hail Macbeth!

by Carol Rocamora

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for All Hail Macbeth!

“By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”

A veritable army of Macbeths have been marching through New York these past few years, culminating in the spectacular one led by Kenneth Branagh at the Park Armory last month.

You can’t ignore them.  After all, this was the play – we were taught -  whose name we dare not utter within a mile of a theatre, lest we be struck by a dramatic thunderbolt.  The least popular of Shakespeare’s “big four,” it has been the tragedy that directors typically avoid, since it’s alleged to bring only bad luck.

But now it seems that everywhere you turn another production of “The Scottish Play” is popping up.  Seven high-profile Macbeths have appeared on New York stages between 2008 and today (not to mention the regionals and London) – after two decades of rarely a sighting of the Thane of Cawdor. And two more are appearing on the horizon.

So why Macbeth, and why now?  It’s a question that bears asking, since Hamlet (up until recently) is the one play that has been the measure of what it means to be a man in a given time, a play “whose end was and is…to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”   Indeed, an annual attention-getting production of Hamlet has not only been tolerated, it has also been expected. But Macbeth has upstaged Hamlet over the past three years on New York stages.  Is this a reflection of the zeitgeist?

The earliest sign of a Macbeth epidemic surfaced in 2008, with Rupert Goold’s ferocious production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music imported from Chichester, full of “sound and fury.” Patrick Stewart’s tyrannical interpretation of the power-driven Thane had a Stalinesque aspect, while Goold’s stark setting (a hospital ward that doubled as a knife-filled kitchen and abattoir) sent an icy wind through the audience, a harbinger of Macbeths to come.

Next came Arin Arbus’s thoughtful, traditional production of the Scottish play at Theatre for a New Audience in March 2011.  The kingly John Douglas Thompson, with his deep voice and commanding stature, brought a depth and dignity to the conflicted protagonist – whose conscience (like Hamlet’s mind) tortured him to the point of self-destruction.

In sharp contrast to these two larger-than-life performances, Will Keen’s diminutive Macbeth came along a month later (April 2011) and  all but disappeared into the darkness of the cavernous Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the Cheek by Jowl’s barebones production directed by Declan Donnellan. This ingenious British company stripped the play down to its essentials (no scenic elements or props – just an empty, dark stage with a few crates), and Keen’s unassuming, bewildered persona was overpowered by the void.  His Thane was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, making all the wrong choices.

Brooklyn Academy of Music

(Macbeth in performance at BAM, photo of Will Keen and Anastasia Hille, photo courtesy of BAM, photo by Stephanie Berger)

In no way were we prepared for the next Macbeth (also in April 2011, the third in two months).  Punchdrunk, that bold British ensemble, brought us Sleep No More, a wordless version of Macbeth set in a series of connected five-story warehouses in New York’s West 20s.  Luring us into the so-called McKittrick Hotel, the producers invited us to “check in” and don frightening white masks, after which they let us loose to grope unattended through a series of dark, dusty, airless rooms where, if we were lucky, we might catch a glimpse of Lady Macbeth bathing her blood-stained husband in a tub, or Banquo’s ghost at the banquet table.  This immersive haunted-house evening of thrills and chills may have scared some of us to death, but it captivated the 30-and-under audience, and it’s still running today at the ideal downtown “date night.”

sleep no more

(Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in performance, photo of  Matthew Oaks with audience members, photo by Yaniv Schulman)

Caught up in the march of the Macbeths, I journeyed to London in March 2013 to see James McAvoy’s Thane at the Trafalgar Studios in London.  This high-wired interpretation, directed by Jamie Lloyd, turned out to have been the most violent thus far. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the all-Scottish production featured a hyperactive McAvoy and his many men in army fatigues, smeared in blood-like war paint.

Back in New York, just when we thought we’d seen a full spectrum of Macbeth interpretations, along came Alan Cumming in July 2012 to amaze us with his solo tour de force at Lincoln Center (it reopened the following spring of 2013 on Broadway).   This innovative interpretation, directed by John Tiffany, features Cumming as a mental patient incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, closely observed by a silent doctor and nurse.  Alone, Cumming re-enacted a two-hour version of Macbeth, playing all the parts – including Lady M and the three witches.  This striking rendering illustrated the paranoia of modern man, isolated in a cold, hostile world.

Next came Lincoln Center’s Macbeth in December 2013.  Jack O’Brien’s Black Sabbath brew was stirred up by the three Weird Sisters (played by men, including John Glover, who referred to himself and his cohorts as “witches with tits.”)  They ran the show, literally, infecting the helpless Macbeth (a sensitive Ethan Hawke) with their lethal virus of power and madness.  Hawke lent a touching vulnerability and sincerity to the role.  Abandoned on that vast Vivian Beaumont Theatre stage, overpowering by those wild witches and a power-mad Lady M, he looked as though he longed to be alone with his thoughts like Hamlet (a role Hawke has also played), and had never gone to Scotland in the first place.

It is almost as if this succession of Thanes were making way for the momentous arrival of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth on our shores last month (May 31 – June 22). This sensational transfer from the Manchester International Festival was more than a production – it was a mega-event, a thrilling theatrical spectacle filling the historic Park Armory and transporting the audience on a unique and unforgettable journey into the world of the play.

Branagh (making his New York stage debut) and his co-director Rob Ashford wanted to provide the audience with a total, immersive theatrical experience as well as an intense, visceral connection to the play.  Although they knew that the cavernous Park Armory would be their destination (a historic military building ideal for staging a military play, they thought), the co-directors first mounted their Macbeth in a much smaller, intimate space – a deconsecrated church in Manchester called St. Peter’s (July 2013).  There they staged the action traverse-style, on a flooring packed with dense, wet mud to replicate the rough terrain of medieval Scotland.

With the transfer to the Park Armory this June, the co-directors have achieved the miracle of transforming that immense space (almost an entire square city block on New York’s East Side) into a bleak Scottish heath.  Capitalizing on its vast depth and height, they retained the original traverse seating configuration, placing two sets of stadium bleachers facing each other where audience members (550 on each side) watch the action in the center corridor.

MacbethThe immersion into the world of the play begins a half hour before curtain time.  Upon entering the Armory, each audience member is assigned a “clan” (to represent the numerous warring factions in the play – mine was Cawdor, for example).  Each “clan” is then assembled in one of the stately, paneled reception rooms in the front part of the Armory.  At 7:50 p.m. a bell clangs ominously, and a hooded usher leads each “clan” in a “call to battle.”  “Stay together!” our usher shouts, as he leads our Cawdor clan down a corridor, through a door, and into the dark, cavernous world of Macbeth (the Armory’s vast 55,000 square foot Drill Hall).  “Beware of Witchcraft!  You’ll be safe only if you walk on the path,” the usher warns, holding his flaming torch high as we follow him across the simulated heath where other hooded figures watch silently and strange creatures (soon to introduce themselves as the Weird Sisters) cavort wildly.  We pass under a series of huge stone obelisks – reminiscent of Stonehenge – up a scaffolding in the stadium area where we take our seats, and a breathless two hour rendition of Macbeth begins.

As we know from his film versions of Henry V and Hamlet, Branagh is an actor/director who loves to wield his sword – and he doesn’t disappoint us in Macbeth.  Leading a cast of 32 expertly trained Shakespearean actors plus dozens of local extras, his Macbeth begins with a battle and ends with a battle (spectacularly, in both instances), with actors slipping and sliding in the mud, stepping over bodies of the fallen. On the east end of the muddy performance corridor stands a towering skeleton of church, with huge, elongated frescos.  Votive candles flicker, while hooded monks pass through the bleachers in silent procession.  On the west end of the performance corridor, opposite the church-like structure, stand three ominous, primitive stone arches, under which the wild witches writhe, while behind them on the heath, the semi-circle of eight primitive Stonehenge-like pillars cast their dark, otherworldly shadows.  Designed by Christopher Oram and lit by Neil Austin, it’s an inspired mis-en-scene for a tortured protagonist torn between the religious world of a higher divinity, a pagan world of primitive urges and supernatural forces, and his own earthly ambition for power and control.

“Once more unto the breach!” Branagh throws himself into the role of the ambitious Scottish Thane who conspires with his wife to rule the land, gets blood on his hands along the way, and suffers the fatal consequences of conscience and prophecy.  An actor in the Olivier tradition, Branagh embraces Shakespeare body and soul, with flashes of flamboyance and boundless energy that keep the play hurtling forward at breakneck speed, sweeping the audience along with it.  Almost equal in excitement to the battles are the highly-charged scenes between Branagh and his Lady M (a lusty Alex Kingston, “his dearest partner in greatness.”) You feel their urgency – an ambitious power-couple, passionately in love, who make a spur-of-the-moment decision that they deeply regret and yet “screw their courage to the sticking point” to follow through on their fated choices.

MacbethBranagh and his cast have the daunting task of filling the vast Armory void with larger-than-life performances, and they deliver. The excellent supporting cast includes John Shrapnel’s deep-voiced Duncan, Jimmy Yuill’s appealing Banquo, and Alexander Vlahos’s compelling Malcolm. And of course, there are those ever-present Weird Sisters (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan) – the wildest and wiliest trio of recent productions, choreographed with cunning and invention by Ashford.

After a spectacularly staged finale in which Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, we file out across the heath to the sound of exultant bagpipes, announcing the rule of Malcolm.  A new regime, a new leader…. But what about the witches’s prophesy of more challenges to the throne and more strife to come?  “Bleed, poor country, bleed,” lamented Macduff, over the damage that Macbeth’s murderous rampage had wrought. Will Scotland bleed again?

There’s a cumulative wisdom to be gained in watching this stunning succession of Macbeths.  No wonder, in retrospect, that this is the era of the so-called Scottish Play. In production after production, we are looking upon a metaphor of our own strife-torn, traumatized, paranoid, post-9/11 world, seeing our own worst fears enacted.  It’s a violent world, with new dark tyrannical forces emerging almost daily, threatening to destabilize with an ever-increasing urgency.

As for our own “poor country, almost afraid to know itself” – what about our past leaders who, in the name of preserving world stability, ended up with blood on their (and our) hands?  What about our new set of ambitious, unscrupulous politicians, threatening to upset the fragile, ever-perilous status quo for their own purposes?

Hopefully these recent Macbeths, plus two in the works (the upcoming film with Michael Fassbender and a new production at the Globe in London starring Joseph Millson), will help us “hold a mirror up” to who we are, and help stop the bleeding.

Meanwhile, “O nation miserable… When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?”

Carol Rocamora teaches theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her translations of Chekhov’s complete dramatic works have been published by Smith & Kraus.