On Tuesday night I had what I think should be called a Theater Experience. I went with a friend to see “Macbeth” at the Park Avenue Armory, and it was like no production I’d ever seen. I’d never been to the Armory, but I’ll definitely be going back. “Macbeth” is only on through June 22, and on the Armory’s site it looks like the rest of the run is sold out, but there are a limited number of $19 day-of rush tickets available.
The play was staged inside the Armory’s enormous Drill Hall, and from the moment we had our tickets scanned, we were asked to step into the world of the play. We were given wristbands – maybe not exactly period-appropriate – with the name of a clan stamped on them and directed to meet up with other members of our clan in a few minutes to head into battle together.
We wisely made a beeline for the bathroom, since the play is two hours without an intermission, and made it just in time to meet up with other members of the Macduff clan and head into the Drill Hall.
This paragraph is where you should stop reading if you think you might see the play and have the full experience for yourself, without spoilers. I knew (because the ticket site told me so) that the floor of the stage would be dirt and that it would rain at some point in the show, but there’s much more to the set than that and you may want to be surprised. If you do, know that while I had some quibbles with some of the choices made in direction and staging, I highly enjoyed it and was really glad I went.
Still with me?
We stepped into the Drill Hall, and it was dark. I grabbed my friend’s arm so we wouldn’t get separated, but as we shuffled along with the crowd there was more light and we could see giant bleachers in the distance, perhaps half a football field away. To get there we followed a stone path across a heath.
The blasted heath, to be exact, complete with dirt and grass and small standing stones and a witch. That’s right, one of the witches was hanging out on the heath as we made our way toward the stage. We were guided up the stairs and to our seats, where our (cute) Macduff clan leader handed us programs with Macduff printed on the cover on what I presume is the Macduff plaid. We found our seats, where I discovered that backless bench seating, regardless of how soft the cushion-top is, does not work well for people as vertically challenged as I am. Even sitting far forward, my feet weren’t quite flat on the ground.
It took a long time for each clan to be led to its seats, so the play started late and we had plenty of time to examine the set. At the heath end of the stage were large standing stones, reminiscent of Stonehenge. At the other end hung a cross above an altar covered with hundreds of candles. The candles were tended by a woman who prayed there throughout the first scene and was revealed at last to be Lady Macbeth, played by Alex Kingston.
The ceiling of the Drill Hall is high, and the darkness created the feeling of actually being outside, a sensation reinforced imperfectly when “thunder, lightning and… rain” graced a battlefield as the three witches looked on – imperfectly, because thankfully it only rained on the fighting actors, not on the audience.
Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth was fascinating; my friend pointed out afterward that he creates two personas, the controlled military leader and the passionate husband-turned-murderer. She called his public persona slick, and noted that he gets slicker as time goes on, to compensate for the madness that lurks beneath. The gap between his two faces widens alarmingly, until, interestingly, the moment he is told that Lady Macbeth is dead. At the moment the madness collapses, as does the slick certainty, and he is merely a sane, exhausted man, ready for the end that is so clearly coming for him.
Alex Kingston began her Lady Macbeth a bit shrilly, more a nudging wife than a temptress toward evil, but the contrast between her brash confidence and encouragement of her husband and her mental collapse as what they have done sinks in, as she watches her husband see things that aren’t there, was beautifully done.
At two hours, the production was swift, though it did get bogged down a little in long scenes with secondary characters in the middle. That said, many of the secondary characters were wonderfully portrayed, especially Macduff (but perhaps we were biased). I was especially interested to watch servants crisscross the stage during private conversations between the Macbeths. When the gentlewoman and the doctor are watching Lady Macbeth sleepwalk and the gentlewoman points out that if she now knows what she should not, it is because Lady Macbeth has said what she should not, it made me wonder whether their servants already knew their deeds, and had had to decide whether to turn them in or stand by silently, knowing how quickly fortunes change in this world.
“Macbeth” is not my favorite Shakespearean tragedy – for that I’d have to go with “Hamlet” – but it’s compelling and terrifying to watch ambitious people do terrible things in pursuit of power and be destroyed, but not before taking many, many others down with them.
There’s more to talk about, so if you’ve read this far and have decided to go see “Macbeth” at the Armory, tell me when you’ve been, and we’ll chat. Unsure and want to know more? Check out the trailer, and the New York Times review. As for me, I think I’m finally going to see “Sleep No More” this summer, because after seeing Ethan Hawke’s “Macbeth” a few months ago and this one this week, I’m sort of on a “Macbeth” kick.
But I want to get tickets to Shakespeare in the Park first – “Much Ado About Nothing” is the perfect palate cleanser after all this tragedy.