Park Avenue Armory
Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. between 66th & 67th Sts.
May 31 - June 22
Kenneth Branagh took care of a lot of firsts in the thrilling immersive production of Macbeth that just concluded its sold-out run at the Park Avenue Armory. Branagh makes his New York stage debut with the Scottish Play; it is also the first time he has appeared in Macbeth and marks his return to Shakespeare after a ten-year absence. Commissioned by the armory and the Manchester International Festival, this Macbeth was first presented in England in a deconsecrated church, but its impressive scope was further expanded for the armory production. Upon picking up tickets, each audience member also receives a wristband and clan designation, gathering in one of the rooms in the armory, then marching in unison into the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, which has been transformed into a dark and mysterious heath littered with tumbleweeds, rocks, and slowly moving figures in brown cloaks. The audience is seated by clan in two sets of bleachers separated by a narrow path of dirt: At one end of the path is an altar decorated with numerous candles and altarpieces of the adult and baby Jesus, Mary, and a saint, while on the other end is a Stonehenge-like arrangement of large stones.
The play, directed by Branagh and eight-time Tony nominee Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying), begins with a breathtaking battle scene in the rain, which turns the dirt into mud as Macbeth and Banquo (Jimmy Yuill) lead King Duncan’s (John Shrapnel) army to victory. Following the fight, the Weird Sisters (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan), seemingly floating in the rock formation, make their prediction of Macbeth’s rise to the throne, and soon he and Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston, in her New York City stage debut) are plotting their way to the top, with only Macduff (Richard Coyle) and Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos) in their way. A thoroughly convincing Branagh digs deep into Macbeth’s psyche, pulling out a wide range of intense emotions that give added depth to a familiar character, while Kingston plays Lady Macbeth with a mature, thoughtful vulnerability. The supporting cast, particularly Yuill, Shrapnel, Coyle, and Tom Godwin as the wretched porter, is outstanding as well, but they almost get swallowed up in the awe-inspiring stagecraft, highlighted by Christopher Oram’s terrific set — which often evokes a hellish pit of doom — Neil Austin’s divine lighting, and Christopher Shutt’s haunting sound design. The gripping two-hour intermissionless show feels right at home at the armory, which has its own military history, one that Branagh’s Macbeth is now a part of in its own unique way.