×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Macbeth’ Starring Kenneth Branagh

Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford's take on the Scottish play is a muddy, bloody treat.

With:
Kenneth Branagh; Alex Kingston.  With Richard Coyle, Scarlett Strallen, John Shrapnel, Alexander Vlahos, Jimmy Yuill, et al.

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.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Macbeth' Starring Kenneth Branagh

Park Avenue Armory; 1,091 seats; $350 top. Opened June 5, 2014. Reviewed June 4. Running time: TWO HOURS.

Production: A presentation commissioned and produced by Park Avenue Armory and Manchester International Festival, in association with Colin Callender, of a play in one act by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Rob Ashford & Kenneth Branagh. Sets & costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Christopher Shutt; composer, Patrick Doyle; hair & makeup, Carol Hemming; fight director, Terry King; production manager, Jim Leaver.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh; Alex Kingston.  With Richard Coyle, Scarlett Strallen, John Shrapnel, Alexander Vlahos, Jimmy Yuill, et al.

More Legit

  • & Juliet review

    West End Review: '& Juliet'

    From “Wicked” to “Waitress,” female empowerment has been a boon for musical theater. But where those shows veered between sincerely earnest and earnestly sincere, “& Juliet” gleefully goes for broke putting gender on the agenda as it yokes pop milestones from the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Celine Dion to a girl-power revamp [...]

  • Ephraim Sykes participates in the 73rd

    Michael Jackson Musical Finds Its King of Pop

    Tony Award nominee Ephraim Sykes will moonwalk on Broadway, playing Michael Jackson in “MJ The Musical.” The show, which its the Great White Way after a rocky gestation. It begins previews on July 6, 2020, at the Neil Simon Theatre with an official opening set for Aug. 13. Sykes is currently appearing in another pop [...]

  • A Christmas Carol review

    Broadway Review: 'A Christmas Carol'

    Those expecting a traditional take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday perennial may be in for a shock at the new Broadway version of “A Christmas Carol.” Or at least they might be terribly perplexed by this dour production, whose additions only subtract from the potency of the transformative tale. While there have been many adaptations [...]

  • Timothee Chalamet poses for photographers at

    Timothée Chalamet to Make London Stage Debut With Eileen Atkins in '4000 Miles'

    Timothee Chalemet is set to take to the London stage for the first time, appearing next spring in Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “4000 Miles.” Matthew Warchus will direct the production at The Old Vic, which will also star Eileen Atkins (“The Crown,” “Gosford Park”). The play opens April 2020. It turns on the story [...]

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content