There’s something magnificently depraved about the vision of “Macbeth” evoked by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford for the immense (55,000 sq. ft.) playing field of the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy may be a cautionary tale about the brutalizing legacy of war and the perils of political ambition. But the best bits in this visceral production are the rousing battle scenes, the gory murders, and the nasty synergy between sex and violence. And let’s admit it: Branagh’s Macbeth is a bloody beast.
The buzz begins at the entrance of the Armory, which retains its original character as a military fortress. After picking up your tickets for this site-specific spectacle, you’re assigned to a specific Scottish clan and ceremoniously ushered into one of the Armory’s grandly restored period rooms. At the summons of alarmingly loud bells, hooded druids appear to lead each clan single-file into the near-darkness of the drill hall. Here, the silent guides takes you down the narrow paved paths that cross this barren heath, steering you past mossy rocks, tufted grasses and standing pools of water to a seat in the bleachers flanking two sides of a traverse stage.
This long, trench-like playing area has a dirt floor that thickens to mud in the fierce thunder-and-lightning storm that opens the show. Standing at both ends of this muddy stage, two gigantic set pieces vividly illustrate the unsettled spiritual status of Scotland during the Middle Ages. At one end, a grim version of Christianity, represented by a massive Gaelic cross suspended over a triptych of Byzantine saints and lit by a hundred votive candles. At the other end, another massive symbol of medieval superstition, this one a Stonehenge-like arrangement of upright stones, backlit by unearthly shafts of light emanating from some unholy place.
This pagan end is the business end, the lair of the three witches Macbeth meets on the heath after distinguishing himself in battle. Although every director feels compelled to leave his mark on the witches, helmers Ashford and Branagh have radically redefined what terrifies grown men — not cackling old hags, but hot young babes with voracious sexual appetites. Clad in rotting black shrouds and looking like fugitives from a Japanese horror movie, these nubile wraiths have the half-dead appearance of vampires. But their lusty cries and orgiastic gyrations are so transporting that these pubescent spooks actually levitate.
“Illusion consultant” Paul Kieve (who provided similar services for “Matilda” and “Pippin”) is credited with this stunning piece of theatrical artifice, which really does raise the bar on showy stage effects. But the entire design team deserves a collective rave: Christopher Shutt, for the unnerving sounds of live battle; lighting designer Neil Austin, for causing the heavens to crack open and spill its radiance; and Christopher Oram, for his heroically scaled set and minutely detailed costumes — the yin and yang of a boundless visual imagination.
The ringing battle scenes staged by fight director Terry King go a long way to explain why Scottish clansmen make such enthusiastic warriors. After each battle, the men are drenched in blood, sweat, and testosterone. When Macbeth comes roaring home, the air around Branagh crackles with sexual energy. He and Lady Macbeth (the white-hot Alex Kingston) are so physically aroused, they can barely gasp out their strategy for murdering the King. United in wickedness, torn apart by guilt, their loss of one another is the play’s unspoken tragedy.
Clocking in at a brisk two hours, the production races along at warp speed, chopping down characters like so much dead timber. This is not to say that there aren’t some hushed moments in this energetic production. Benny Young and Katie West are solemnly moving as the Scottish doctor and the young noblewoman who bear unhappy witness to Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown in her sleepwalking scene.
But the most shocking scenes — certainly the bloodiest — are the ones that are normally recounted by messengers and don’t actually appear in the text. Here, they are painstakingly staged in all their gruesome glory: the assassination of John Shrapnel’s stately Duncan, the savage murder of Jimmy Yuill’s bluff Banquo, and the meticulously choreographed deaths of Lady Macduff (Scarlett Strallen) and her children, committed by heartless assassins and beautifully mourned by Richard Coyle’s honorable Macduff.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Branagh was born to play Macbeth. After being involved as actor and/or director in two dozen Shakespeare productions, including the 1984 “Henry V” that brought his red-blooded performance style to the attention of just about the entire known world, he was primed to play a character for whom he seems to have a natural affinity. That it turns out to be his New York debut is almost shocking — but well worth the wait.