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By Brian Scott Lipton
“Once more into the breach, my friends.” True, that quote comes from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” but it immediately springs to the mind while walking with your “clan” of fellow theatergoers through the atmospheric Moor-like setting at the rear of the Park Avenue Armory’s vast Drill Room to take your seats at what may well be your fourth or fifth production of the Bard’s “Macbeth” in the past 12 months.
So is the trekking worth it, not to mention sitting for two hours in backless benches, just for the chance to see the great British actors Sir Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston relatively up close and personal? My answer is yes! Not only do these two master thespians give thoughtful, well-spoken performances as the Scottish King and his bloodthirsty wife, but this condensed version is actually one of the most lucid renderings of the play I’ve seen in the past 30 years.
And then, there’s the spectacle. Using the middle of the Drill Hall much like a tennis court, Branagh, his co-director Rob Ashford, and the brilliant set and costume designer Christopher Oram have created some striking visual effects, from the initial appearance of the three weird sisters (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan) to the raging battle that sets the story of Macbeth’s rise to the throne in action, to the shocking-in-every-way appearances of the ghosts of the murdered Banquo (Jimmy Yuill). And, oh yeah, there is also a flashy burst of fire (a la David Leveaux’s recent “Romeo & Juliet”) that is simultaneously superfluous and mesmerizing.
Alas, like at a tennis match, if you’re focused in one direction, you might miss something remarkable happening in the other one. And the Hall’s gigantic space and the cast’s seemingly authentic accents often combine in unfortunate ways, so that some dialogue literally vanishes into thin air.
What does come through, extremely clearly, is not just the passion and sexual fire in the Macbeth’s marriage, but the overwhelming desire of this man to please his ambitious mate. Branagh, still boyish-looking at 53, makes a most convincing transition from the meek aristocrat who is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to the King who is willing (and almost eager) to kill anyone who might stand in his way of maintaining the throne. Even more impressive is watching Branagh practically deflate when he learns of his wife’s death, and his rendering of the famed “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech as a spur-of-the-moment eulogy, is truly heartbreaking.
Admittedly, Kingston can get a tad “actressy” at times (especially at the beginning of her mad scene), but there’s also real depth to her work. Sadly, that’s less true of the large ensemble; they do their jobs efficiently, but rarely make much of an impression. The main exception is Richard Coyle, who handles his toughest moments as MacDuff with great aplomb, but even he’s outdone by Scarlett Strallen, who’s particularly vivid in her brief scene as his wife, and young Dylan Clark Marshall as their son.
www.armoryonpark.org – thru June 22nd
*Photos: Stephanie Berger